Fairgrounds transfer gets unofficial nod from Island County Commissioners

The Board of Island County Commissioners yesterday unofficially approved ending the county’s 54-year ownership of the historic Langley fairgrounds and transferring ownership to the Port of South Whidbey, pending a public vote on the matter.

The informal approval will likely prompt the port by March 31 to sign a second one-year lease to manage the fairgrounds, said Port Commissioner Curt Gordon after the commissioners’ regular Tuesday meeting. It will also let the port start preparing an August referendum asking South Whidbey voters whether the district should take ownership and whether the voters are willing to let the port raise its levy limit on their property taxes to support fairgrounds maintenance and grant-matching.

Revenue would equal about $200,000 annually.

The board yesterday stopped short of formally approving a transfer should the referendum pass.

“There are questions from my constituents that I want to have answered, and until that’s done, I don’t want to take a formal action,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson. “(But) I think we’re moving in that direction, and I think we’ll get there.”

She later added, “I haven’t heard anything that would prevent me, if I were in your shoes, from moving forward preparing for a ballot measure.”

Chairman Rick Hannold told Gordon, “You get a head nod from me,” and Commissioner Jill Johnson added, “I’m happy to give you a head-nod today.”

Gordon responded, “OK, that’s what we needed to know,” and the discussion ended.

Detailing her concerns, Price Johnson said she had asked Larry Van Horn, the county’s facilities manager, to talk with the island’s 4-H clubs “to make sure we’re addressing their needs going forward.”

After the meeting, Gordon said the port will likely call a meeting within the next few days, to which the public is invited, to “see what my fellow commissioners want to do.” He said that because the port has now received the county’s assurance it will transfer the fairgrounds if the referendum succeeds, the port will sign a new management lease on the fairgrounds before the current one expires, on March 31.

“Whether that ballot measure passes or fails, we’ll honor the new lease,” he pledged.

The referendum would be voted on only by residents within the Port’s jurisdiction.

The commissioners’ unofficial approval of ownership transfer means defeat for a proposal by the Island County Fair Association under which it would have managed the fairgrounds and the county would have continued its ownership. But that didn’t surprise Association board president Jason Kalk.

“I expected they’d be leaning that way,” he said Tuesday.

Gordon emphasized that the port will be a good steward of the annual Whidbey Island Fair.

“The reason we took this on is that we don’t want the fair to go away,” he said. “We’re committed to this fairgrounds and to having a fair every year.”