Low open-house turnout thwarts Port of South Whidbey’s ballot eduction hopes

Community members meet with commissioners from the Port of South Whidbey at an open house. It's the first of two open houses on the port's campground proposals.

The first of two open houses on the Port of South Whidbey’s fairgrounds proposal took place this week, but public sentiment on the August ballot measure remains unclear.

The Wednesday evening meeting in the Coffman Building was attended by only about 20 people, not including district staff and vocal supporters. At least one commissioner said he’d been hoping for more.

“A lot of the folks there were pretty positive, but many were people we’ve already talked to,” Commissioner Curt Gordon.

“There could have been a bigger turnout,” he added. “The port wants to get [its] message out.”

The ballot measure proposes to transfer ownership of the fairgrounds from the county to the port. New ownership is conditional, however, on the public also OK’ing a tax hike that would bring in an additional $200,000 in revenue per year.

The money would be spent solely on the fairgrounds, partly on maintenance and operations but also on facility investments; some of the revenue would be used to levy grant money.

Those who did attend Wednesday’s open house seemed largely supportive.

“It sounds like 5 cents on $1,000 isn’t much money,” Brian Dunnington said. “The alternative is having nothing.”

The port’s current levy rate is about 13 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. If the measures are successful, it would increase to about 18 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The owner of a $300,000 home would pay an additional $15, or $54 total in port taxes.

Dunnington said he wanted to know how the port planned to address the problem of retaining full-time tenants when they’d be asked to leave for one month out of every year during the annual fair. Port officials explained that tenants would be provide with storage space, and that efforts would be made to minimize the displacement.

At least one person at the meeting was not so ready to cast a “yes” vote.

“No, I’m not convinced,” said Don LaMontagne, a Freeland resident.

He said he’s not convinced that the port won’t find itself strapped with unexpected costs, and that another levy request won’t be down the road.

“Can we do this sustainably, make this work?” he asked. “I hope we can.”

“I’d like to check the pudding a little bit before they change they change the recipe,” he said.

Gordon said he also spoke to the Freeland Chamber of Commerce this week, which garnered a larger crowd of about 50, and that the tenant question was common at both gatherings. But the biggest query was what improvements the port has in mind.

“I don’t think people want a bunch of aggressive improvements and neither do I,” he said. “I just want to make it revenue neutral.”

He envisions small projects, such as adding heat to the Pole Barn. It would mean it could be used/rented out 12 months out of the year, rather than only the warmer seasons. There’s no plans to raze a number of structures as was proposed in the controversial $10 million Landerman-Moore Associates study of 2014.

Once that’s explained, he said people usually come around and seem to be supportive. It’s one of the reason he wants to reach the public, especially when low turnouts may indicate people already have their minds made up.

“Once people get informed about the details, once they realize we’re talking about a nickel of funding… to save the fairgrounds,” said Gordon, “they start to get it.”

“That’s why I want to talk to the Don LaMontagnes… and at least make sure they have the right message,” he said.

A second open house is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. July 11 at the Coffman Building. Port officials will also present the proposal during a League of Women Voters Forum from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 6 at Unitarian Universalist Church in Freeland.