Events, RV campground, ownership change focus of Island County Fairgrounds plan by South Whidbey port

Improving the Island County Fairgrounds is going to cost millions, and some of it may be in the form of increased taxes.

A plan crafted by a consultant for the Port of South Whidbey outlines how the 12.8-acre property can be turned into a money maker. The county-owned property in Langley is best known for hosting the annual Whidbey Island Fair (formerly Island County Fair and Whidbey Island Area Fair). But the fairgrounds hasn’t been profitable — or even paid for itself — for decades as old buildings require increased maintenance and see only sparse use.

“Over the last number of years, the fair, 4-H, and sporadic other uses have not provided the income needed to maintain the buildings and the county has been unable to make up the difference,” wrote consultant Marty Matthews in the plan. “As a result, the buildings have increasingly fallen into disrepair and some of the proposed new uses require changes, including remodeling, heating, and electrical work.”

Since early 2015, the port district has managed the county’s property with the goal of seeing if the port could be a suitable agency to oversee it in the long term. But with a limited taxing district that stretches from Clinton to just north of Freeland, the Port of South Whidbey will need several funding sources beyond its authority. Island County’s board of commissioners will discuss the proposal to give up the property and put that measure before voters at its Tuesday, March 8 meeting.

Getting the buildings and property in shape, as the plan describes, will mean an added ability to rent it to businesses and events. With more happenings at the fairgrounds, more money comes in, and more improvements can be made. Three options — conservative, middle of the road, and aggressive — lay out a path to get from what the property is now to what it could be in seven or 10 years.

All of it is predicated on the Port of South Whidbey’s continued long-term management. That will only happen, port President Ed Halloran said in a phone interview Friday morning, if Island County transfers ownership to the Port of South Whidbey. That will first go before voters this fall, likely in the primary election in August, for a yea/nay ballot measure that would ask Island County to approve the county giving up the fairgrounds to the port.

“It’s a simple, kind of yes or no question to start the ball rolling,” Halloran said.

“We’ve proven we can improve the fairgrounds, the fair experience,” he added. “We’ve gotten more people in more buildings for different kinds of use … Now, we have to decide if the landowners can do something with that fact.”

Essentially the plan calls to increase revenue by making a host of capital improvements, a “build it and they will come” plan for spending money on repairs, construction, parking, and hoping to see returns from more use and thus more spending.

Funding for capital improvements and operations will come from several sources: state and federal grants, county coffers, revenue from rentals, events and fees, debt, donors, sponsors, and taxes. The plan does not specify what percent each of these should be in a budget.

Projections for revenue and expense show that at least $5.65 million will be spent for capital investment in the conservative plan, $9.85 million in the middle plan, and $11.58 million in the aggressive plan. The conservative plan is over 10 years, middle over seven years, and aggressive over five years.

Some of the major undertakings cost from $10,000 to upwards of $1 million:

• $1.5 million for the Removal and replacement of the Turner and Burrier buildings with one new building.

• $1 million for the removal and replacement of the cattle and grandstands with a multi-purpose building.

• $1 million for a pavilion roof over the horse arena and new lighting and sound.

• $750,000 the remove and replace three horse barns with multi-purpose stalls.

• $120,000 to heat, insulate and renovate the Pole Building.

• $100,000 for a storm water system and bluff stabilization, and another $100,000 for solar power to replace and make obsolete $10,000 in annual electricity costs, among several more projects.

Paying for all of that will require several funding sources. But if the goal is to make the fairgrounds’ budget, at the least, run in the black, then individual and total investments need to see returns. One of the property’s planned top moneymakers is the RV park and campgrounds. Even in the conservative path of the plan, the campgrounds turns in revenue upwards of $40,000 after the first year of beautification and climbs to $127,000 after a decade and a bathroom/shower facility installation. The aggressive path gets as high as $144,550 after year 10.

Parking is one of the top priorities of the plan. Were the fairgrounds to expand its roster of events and activities as the plan prescribes, finding places for visitors to park becomes a major challenge. There’s not enough nearby parking currently for large events such as the fair, when people line Camano Avenue/Langley Road, Sandy Point Road and Edgecliff Drive, in addition to filling the nearby small lots of the park and ride, middle school and church.

A previous plan for the fairgrounds floated in 2011 relied heavily on parking fees for revenue. That plan, as Halloran recalled, was roundly rejected by user groups for being impractical. The port’s plan, however, has a few options for parking solutions including directing cars to stop at outlying lots in Clinton, Langley, Bayview and Freeland, and using a shuttle to transport people to the fairgrounds. Halloran likened it to the way people get to the track for the Indianapolis 500. Other capital plans for parking include buying nearby properties and developing them into lots or one into a parking garage.

“It’s not an insoluble problem,” Halloran said. “It’s one that if we’re in charge we’ll have to solve right out of the gate.”

The public’s vote would decide the port’s continued involvement. The Port of South Whidbey runs seven properties and facilities already, Halloran said, and an eighth is possible but not necessary. He and the other commissioners see an opportunity to fulfill the district’s mission to enhance economic development while respecting the rural character and environment of South Whidbey.