Island County commissioners lean toward South Whidbey port’s fairgrounds plan

It appears a last-ditch effort by the Whidbey Island Fair Association’s board to wrestle back control of the fairgrounds has failed, and that voters will have their say on an August ballot over just who should, and who shouldn’t, own the property.

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson addresses Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Curt Gordon and the rest of the board (not pictured) Wednesday at a meeting in Coupeville. The meeting saw presentations by both the port and the Whidbey Island Fair Association on potential futures for the fairgrounds in Langley. Island County commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Rick Hannold are pictured in the background.

It appears a last-ditch effort by the Whidbey Island Fair Association’s board to wrestle back control of the fairgrounds has failed, and that voters will have their say on an August ballot over just who should, and who shouldn’t, own the property.

Members of the fair board and Port of South Whidbey commissioners met with the Island County decision-makers in a charged meeting Wednesday to present their individual plans and hopes for the property’s future. Although no decisions were made, the meeting ended with little question that strong majority support exists among the county commissioners for the port’s plan.

“I’m a fan of the port being the property owner of the fairgrounds,” said Commissioner Jill Johnson during the two-and-a-half-hour discussion in Coupeville.

“The local control needs to be with the South Whidbey community,” she said.

Johnson was the strongest champion for port ownership during the meeting, but she wasn’t alone. Commissioner Rick Hannold made it clear several times that he believes the port and the fair board each have their strengths and that they should stick to them.

“I think your expertise is running the fair,” Hannold told fair representatives at the meeting.

In a later interview, fair board President Jason Kalk said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome. There’s no doubt the county commissioners support the fair board in its mission to put on the annual event, said Kalk, but endorsing the port’s plan is an easy win for the county.

“The local control needs to be with the South Whidbey community.”

Jill Johnson

Island County commissioner

“They get management from the port for another year… and if for whatever reason it doesn’t get past a public vote, they can revisit it again next year,” he said.

“It’s a no-lose decision for the commissioners to stick with the port,” Kalk said.

Wednesday’s meeting is the culmination of years of uncertainty and financial struggle surrounding the fairgrounds. Owned by Island County, the property was until late 2014 managed by the fair association, the organization that also puts on the annual fair. The group’s board declined to renew its contract as property managers because the county would not commit annual resources for ongoing facility maintenance.

The port, lobbied by Johnson and District 1 Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, agreed to take the reins for one year while conducting a study to determine its financial feasibility. The report is in, and the port’s contract is about to be up — April 1 — but the question has arisen about how to move forward.

Port commissioners have decided they are willing to take on permanent management but only if the district owns the property. The board has requested the county commissioners support a plan to put a measure on the primary ballot that would ask voters if they’d OK the transfer and fund a levy of 5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, totaling about $200,000 in revenue, to fund annual maintenance. The port is also looking to secure a time-sensitive $100,000 rural county economic development grant to develop the property.

The plan, however, has had anything but a smooth rollout, suffering from miscommunication between the port and county commissioners over the port’s intentions and the county’s support, as well as suffering strong criticism from the fair board. Representatives from the latter have criticized the port’s management of the fairgrounds and expressed fears that their new landlords envision a future that doesn’t involve the fair association.

Wednesday’s meeting was meant to clear the air with the port, but also hear an alternative proposal from the fair association. Concerning the former, the meeting appears to have been a success as misconceptions were clarified. But, positions were also reinforced and lines in the sand were drawn.

First and foremost, port commissioners promised not to immediately abandon the county once their contract expires, but made it clear that they will step away soon if the county won’t endorse its plan.

“We’ll give you a couple months, but you need to make a decision,” Commissioner Jack Ng said.

Laying out their case, port commissioners said the study made clear several things: the current ownership model makes for unnecessary and confusing challenges for both tenant solicitation and retention, but also that the existing revenue stream is unsustainable. Renovations and the funding to accomplish them likely won’t come from the county, and the port needs autonomy to acquire the necessary taxpayer support.

The port commissioners also said that they didn’t believe their proposed solution to make the property financially viable, one heavily geared around the port’s mission of economic development, is the only path forward. Other organizations could take up the torch.

“We won’t be insulted if you don’t take this path,” Commissioner Curt Gordon said.

Details of what a port-owned fairgrounds future might look like has been a source of angst, both among the county commissioners and to the fair board. The study, completed by Langley resident Martin Mathews, outlines visions to develop the fairgrounds over different periods of time and at different costs — $1.8 million over 10 years to $5.9 over 5 years. Many worry that it lacks protections for cash-strapped non-profit groups such as 4-H and the fair board. For example, under an “aggressive” model for revenue, building rental fees could hit $45,000 by year 10.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson argued that accommodations need to be made for the many groups that are intrinsically tied to the fairgrounds. The price tag for a sustainable fairgrounds can’t come at their expense.

“They all have deep, generational involvement,” Price Johnson said.

All three port commissioners said the study’s rent scenarios were models, not concrete plans.

“It’s a study plan, not a business plan,” Ng said. “We have no intention of charging $45,000.”

Johnson appeared to take little convincing. She said Camano Island residents don’t care about the fair — they have their own fairgrounds — that Oak Harbor residents only “care about it on a good day” and so it’s unlikely a majority of county commissioners would prioritize the funding investments the property deserves.

“I hate to say it out loud, but it is the reality,” Johnson said.

After the port’s turn at the table, Johnson was ready to move forward and suggested the board forgo the fair board’s planned presentation, which proposed a reinvention of the past arrangement between the two entities where they would once again partner as property managers for a county-owned facility.

“Why make them tap dance if the show is over,” she said.

Justin Burnett / The South Whidbey Record | People representing the Whidbey Island Fair Association, at left and top of circled tables, speak with Island County commissioners Wednesday.

But both Price Johnson and Hannold said they wanted to listen to the fair board’s pitch. It was considerably shorter than the discussion with the port.

Fair board members argued that they are experienced property managers, and presented a financial future reliant on grants and other uncertain sources of revenue. Also, they painted a picture for a brighter future and a positive relationship —the rocky relationships of the past won’t be repeated.

“Things are different now,” Wendy Sundquist said.

This isn’t a quick fix, she said, but the fair board believes a successful long-term plan can be crafted, one that doesn’t require them or the county to “blow up a building” to make the property viable.

Hannold reiterated that the county has proven itself as “terrible property managers” and that the port would have far more resources at its command. It’s simply a better fit, he said.

Johnson was also unswayed and began asking questions to which she already knew the answers, such as if a pipe breaks who will fix it, and who’s liable in an accident.

“The answer is the county is liable,” she said, after a moment with no response.

Apologizing for being “harsh,” the commissioner said that this was a great plan B but it’s not the plan A that’s needed.

“I just don’t see a strong future for this,” Johnson said.


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