Rumors about a future partnership between the Port of Coupeville and Washington State University may turn out to be true.
After being directly questioned by a member of the public, port Commissioner Marshall Bronson confirmed at a meeting last week that he’s been having ongoing conversations about the possibility of WSU coming to the port-owned Greenbank Farm. He also said WSU would like to hold a public meeting about the idea.
Currently, the Greenbank Farm Management Group holds leases at the farm, but a new contract is being reviewed by attorneys and should be approved next month.
Under the new contract, the port will take over leases at the start of the new year. The management group will still serve as property managers and work in collaboration with the port as it assumes more responsibilities at the farm.
Rumblings about the possibility of the university moving to the farm have been a source of anxiety for tenants, who currently have month-to-month leases.
“We’ve been hearing the rumors for almost three years now,” said Judy Feldman, executive director for the Greenbank Farm Management Group. “There are just a lot of questions the port and community needs to address. Any significant shift in tenants has impacts on the remaining tenants.”
Port of Coupeville Commissioner Mike Diamanti said he only learned Bronson was having the conversations about a week before the meeting, but he was happy to hear a public meeting was being planned.
“I’m very enthusiastic about that,” Diamanti said. “I’ve been lobbying for that for ages. WSU has been very vague about what they want.”
Public knowledge of the idea of having WSU at the farm first appeared last fall when the port was seeking requests for proposals for management of the farm.
At that time, WSU officials expressed interest in a partnership but said it could not serve as manager of the farm.
David Day, executive director of the port, confirmed this week that conversations began again in February or March of this year.
He also confirmed there is no proposed plan at this time and everything is just an ongoing conversation, but that both parties have expressed interest in seeing if there’s a possibility there.
“The port is just looking at options and I believe we’d be stupid not to,” Day said. “Do we have a spot at Greenbank Farm for WSU? We don’t have an answer.”
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson serves on an advisory board for WSU North Puget Sound in Everett and has been involved in discussions about bringing additional WSU programs to Whidbey Island.
“WSU is interested in reaching out beyond the Everett Campus with the agriculture and Farm to Table Hospitality courses and could be interested in bringing those resources to Whidbey Island,” Price Johnson said. “I felt it important as a local representative on the advisory council to let folks within our county know of this opportunity. I reached out to the Port of Coupeville, the Island County Economic Development Council, Port of South Whidbey and Goosefoot to consider the possibilities of attracting WSU to Whidbey.”
Price Johnson said it’s still unknown if it’s even feasible to have WSU at the farm and that the university is waiting to see if the state Legislature is going to fund new degree programs, including degrees in agriculture.
“It would be great if the state Legislature funds these programs,” she said. “I just see wonderful opportunities.”
Price Johnson said to discuss specific plans publicly when there are so many working parts still unknown would be premature.
“I know that’s created some anxiety for tenants,” she said. “But they are tenants in a public facility and the process will be public. Regardless of the outcome of the Greenbank Farm discussions, having WSU in our backyard is not only great for our residents through providing educational options; it is highly valuable through the collaborative expansion of economic development activities, technology transfer and creative partnerships.”
The management group currently leases 10 acres at the farm for its Organic Farm School.
Feldman said while she’s not opposed to the idea of WSU coming to the farm, the commissioners need to think about whether or not the farm is equipped to accommodate a larger organization.
She said there might be five more acres available for agriculture and additional space for hay and livestock. But she said she’s concerned the farm might not be able to supply the needed water and storage.
Day said he could imagine a situation where WSU and the Organic Farm School work in collaboration and he could see how WSU could potentially bring students to the school.
He said he sees a lot of possibilities with the university coming to the farm, including increased opportunities in bringing visitors from off island.
“It could be amazing,” Day said.
Then there’s also the question of where at the farm WSU could go.
Price Johnson said everything is still unknown, even if WSU needs office space at the farm.
If office space were needed, Diamanti said the only workable space would be the three gallery spaces in Barn C. The only lease holder that isn’t currently month-to-month is the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, which hold a lease on the second floor of Barn C. That lease ends in April 2016, Feldman said.
While no official plan has been presented, Feldman said she is happy a public meeting is being discussed and hopes it will provide needed information to the tenants and Greenbank Farm community.
“There’s something very special about the farm being publicly owned and run by a nonprofit,” Feldman said. “We think there’s a synergy here and we hope they recognize that.
“This is a special place and it deserves a little bit of respect and a whole lot of care.”