Port eyes $1.67 million in fairgrounds improvments

The Port of South Whidbey hopes to become the official new owner of the fairgrounds by the end of the month, and once the transfer is complete district commissioners will likely move quickly on a plan to invest about $1.67 million in renovations over the next two years, port Executive Director Angi Mozer said.

The port’s draft improvement plan is wide ranging, covering everything from immediate safety fixes such as a $25,000 emergency exit in the blackbox of the Pole Building to the estimated $750,000 demolition and replacement of horse barns one, two and three in late 2018.

The project tab, about $1.15 million, will be largely covered with unsecured grants. The port plans to cover the remaining $515,000, likely with a bond or loan backed by the general fund, said Mozer, though no decisions have been made.

“This is all sorta an in-the-works plan,” she said.

The port commissioners discussed the draft improvement list during a recent workshop and voiced support for both the plan and the aggressive two-year timeline.

“I think we owe the public… ,” said Commissioner Curt Gordon. “We need to go in right away and make some of these changes.”

Commissioner Ed Halloran agreed, noting that many of the improvements are sorely needed.

“There’s wiring in the ceiling (of the Pole Building) that hasn’t been touched since the building went up,” he said.

“It’s pretty darn clear there is plenty to get started on,” he added.

The renovation plan hinges on several factors, first and foremost the successful transfer of the property from Island County to the port. Both entities have worked toward a soft March 31 deadline, the date the port’s property management contract expires. County Budget Director Elaine Marlow said she’s optimistic the deadline will be met; the process has been smooth with few major hurdles, and the final details are being hashed out by lawyers.

“I think it’s more getting through the paperwork than anything else,” Marlow said.

Several procedural steps remain: the county is required to surplus the property, run a display ad in Whidbey newspapers and issue a press release. A public hearing will follow and a final vote of the commissioners.

The hearing is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 28 in the commissioners hearing room in Coupeville.

The county and port agreed to split the costs of the transfer, which includes bills for a property assessment, a title search, etc. Marlow said hadn’t seen the invoices yet, so couldn’t provide a cost.

The value of the fairgrounds, however, was assessed at about $1.8 million, including buildings. Mozer said county and port attorneys agree there are no legal hiccups with transferring the property absent a purchase price but that the port’s $1.67 million investment plan is extra insurance that the deal will pass muster with state auditors.

The port’s voter-approved ownership of the fairgrounds came with dedicated funding; the district included a levy hike that will provide $200,000 annually. About half of that is dedicated to operations — salaries of a property manager and maintenance worker, and day-to-day expenses. Mozer said $100,000 isn’t enough to do everything they want right away so the commissioners are considering selling a bond(s) or taking out a loan for $515,000.

Details of either option have yet to be solidified, but Mozer said the board will likely move quickly to secure the funding after the transfer is complete. The needed $1.15 million in grant funding has been identified but not acquired; the bond or loaned money will put the port in a better position to do so, she said.

The terms of the property transfer also included the formation of an advisory group made up of five to nine stakeholders that will weigh in on fairgrounds improvements or changes. Mozer said that group will meet soon after the port becomes the official owner of the fairgrounds to discuss and modify the draft improvement list. It would then go before the port commissioners for final approval.

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