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Langley chamber spearheading business fair

Lynae Slinden and Sherry Mays want to take an old idea and make it fresh.

With the South End economy hurting, the Port of South Whidbey commissioner and the executive director for the Langley Chamber of Commerce are on a mission to revitalize the Uniquely Whidbey Trade Fair.

Put simply, they want to bring a version of it south, possibly as early as June.

“Putting on a local business fair isn’t something the port has the energy or wherewithal to run right now,” Slinden explained. “But I’ve been exploring the idea with local chambers about a South Whidbey version, focusing on what I call ‘incubator’ businesses; small operations that need a leg up to get going and be successful.”

Mays is on Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson’s economic health council and saw an opportunity to promote the arts, culture and education.

“I think having a fair at the Island County Fairgrounds would be beneficial for local people who offer unusual products or services,” Mays said.

Begun in 1991 by the port, for years the Uniquely Whidbey trade show was held at South Whidbey High School.

Former port commissioner Gene Sears was involved from the beginning. Sears said the idea was to expose cottage-type firms, “little companies out in the woods,” that otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to become known.

“It was very successful and met the port’s desire to improve the economy,” he said.

But 12 years ago, the concept was taken over by the Island County Economic Development Council, and the trade fair moved to Coupeville to be more accessible to businesses from other parts of the island.

And it grew.

Last October, the EDC’s Biz Expo hosted 131 businesses small and large; 2,800 visitors showed up during the two-day event.

“The show was more important than ever,” said EDC director Sharon Hart. “It’s the only one like it in the Northwest. It helps keep tax dollars local and allows new businesses to reach out to customers they wouldn’t encounter otherwise.”

Mays and representatives of the Clinton and Freeland chambers want to start a new, localized trade fair that targets local, small concerns and their customers. They plan to pitch the idea

March 11 at the next port meeting at the Freeland Library. The port has $15,000 budgeted for tourism, economic development and fair sponsorships and accepts applications at their March and September meetings only.

“They’ll be met with open arms,” Port Commissioner Geoff Tapert said. “The Coupeville expo is not in the port’s geographic area and somehow has lost its identity over the years.”

Tapert, Slinden and fellow port commissioner Rolf Seitle have long encouraged the development council to move the expo back south.

Roughly a third of the exhibitors each year at the re-named Uniquely Whidbey Biz Expo in Coupeville are from South Whidbey, with the balance hailing from the north and central parts of the county as well as Camano Island.

Until 2006, the port had provided $5,000 annually from its tourism and economic development budget to support the expo, though commissioners have never liked the concept of South End money leaving the port’s taxing district.

In 2007, that amount was reduced to $1,000 and last year the port paid only its $500 membership fee.

Tapert believes smaller operations, such as crafts people and artisans, aren’t going to travel north when their business is on the South End.

“And we could have a ‘kids buy’ section for young people who want to promote products, like the pens and birdhouses made at the middle school shop class,” he said. “We want to get back to our roots helping the local economy.”

Originally a business-to-business event, it has expanded as business owners seek new customers.

“The public wanted to meet the businesses and the businesses wanted to better market their capabilities to the local market,” Hart added. “Plus, it’s a great opportunity for business people to network. For many vendors, this is the only trade show they’re involved with.”

“Buying local keeps the purchase dollars circulating within the economy, one of the main reasons the expo can be so helpful to small businesses and those just starting out,” Hart said.

She said that her office is available for any business to get free financial advice, and partners with local chambers of commerce on specific issues.

“Not long ago, the issue of signage for companies in Freeland was brought up,” Hart recalled. “We put owners in touch with those who do the permitting and this helped resolve the situation.”

She said it’s too soon to tell what the impact of the South Whidbey trade fair might have on the EDC’s Coupeville exhibit.

“I don’t know what their mission is right now, but if they want to get tips on pitfalls in setting it up, we’re here,” she said.

Andy McRea runs a small South End company, McRea Partners, specializing in residential framing construction using insulated panels. He exhibited in Coupeville last year, but thinks a local South Whidbey trade fair has merit.

“It would be a great chance for businesses to connect and support each other,” he said. “Plus, it would educate folks about the resources this community can offer.”

McRea added that, if one show is in October and the other in June, he sees no reason not to be at both.

Details of the business fair — including dates, times, booth eligibility and pricing — have yet to be finalized. For more information, contact Mays at

221-6765.

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