Port of South Whidbey officials promise slow, measured approach to fairgrounds

For better or worse, voters will decide the fate of the Island County Fairgrounds in just two weeks time.

The primary election is Aug. 2 and it will determine whether ownership of the 13-acre facility is transferred to an optimistic Port of South Whidbey and a property-funding 5-cent tax hike OK’d, or if stewardship will remain with a reluctant board of county commissioners, a body that’s said the fairgrounds’ proverbial checkbook is quickly running out of pages.

Though the results of the primary will conclude more than two years of intense discussion, study and planning, many  remain unsure of the long road’s rightful terminus. Supporters view the fairgrounds as a cultural icon, a golden egg of economic development that only needs the right parents to hatch it, but recent public meetings have seen others voice suspicions that the 80-plus-year-old property is more likely a rodeo bull — a potentially expensive ride for which taxpayers will pay the price.

Which is true? With ballots arriving in mailboxes this week, we decided it was high time to find out. Here’s what we learned.

The business plan

First and foremost, there isn’t one. Though two in-depth studies and financial analyses have been conducted in the past several years — the controversial 2014 Landerman-Moore study and the more recent 2016 Marty Matthews study — to date the port has yet to adopt any formal business plan that would decidedly guide a port-owned-fairgrounds future.

Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Curt Gordon, one of the loudest advocates of the proposal, said in an interview with The Record this week that pigeonholing the public into a concrete plan before it had a chance to weigh in on ownership, much less give input on possible changes, would have been unfair.

“I think it’s irresponsible to start today, before the election, and before we’ve figured out whether the public wants this,” Gordon said.

“If the public wants to support us… then we’re going to turn all this into a business plan as soon as we own it,” he added.

Supporting the port’s ballot measure would mean two things: voters must agree to transfer ownership of the property but also approve a levy hike that would bring in an additional $200,000 per year. The port has mandated that both parts must be approved for the measure to pass.

The money would be spent solely on the fairgrounds, partly on maintenance and operations but also on facility capital investments and to levy grant money.

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.

While the fairgrounds future presently remains an open road, both the Landerman-Moore and Matthews studies are detailed documents that outline possible visions and the financial paths needed to accomplish them. Gordon said the port will likely pick and choose from both, making use of the research but proceeding only with portions that align with community values.

“I see us drawing from a piece of this and a piece of that,” Gordon said.

One of the first steps after a successful election would be to create an advisory group made up of stakeholders from entities such as the county, the city of Langley and the fair board. The creation of such a group was one of several conditions the county commissioners required before giving the port the green light to take its ownership proposal to the public.

While the final say on any decisions rests with the port, the advisory board will be relied upon to assist in deciding the direction of the fairgrounds and any major changes.

How much?

With no set business or renovation plans in place, the final price tag remains an unknown. Many suspect, however, that it will be a lot.

Mary Ann Mansfield, a Langley resident and former fair volunteer, says she is familiar with the property and believes any meaningful improvements will take a significant investment. Though she said she “loves the fair” and plans to cast a “yes” vote, she says it will be expensive and worries the port won’t go far enough.

“I’m sure it’s going to take a whole bunch of money to do what needs to be done, and not just throw a Band-aid over a hemorrhage,” she said.

Both the Landerman-Moore and Matthews studies identified significant capital investments and the razing of at least half a dozen buildings, several of which are Washington Heritage Barns, to a tune of between $10 million and $1.8 million over 10 years. Calls for their removal were partly due to their age and deterioration, but also due to space limitations — new or larger buildings might better accommodate, and therefore attract, prospective business tenants and large events.

Gordon says he’s not ready to fire up the bulldozers just yet. In fact, aside from the eastern-most horse barn — building three — he says he doesn’t believe anything needs to come down. Part of the great power of the facility is its rural and cultural charm, he said, and fundamental changes would have to be approached with extreme care.

“I’m not in a hurry to tear anything down,” he said.

Gordon envisions investing in the neighborhood of $5 million over 10 years, all of which would be capital improvements: adding insulation, rewiring, installing heaters, meeting fire standards, roof work, etc.

Most of the funding would come from grants; Matthews’ study outlined 13 possible sources, ranging from state pots such as the Community Economic Revitalization Board and Washington Heritage Barn grant programs to several federal U.S. Department of Agriculture possibilities.

Commissioner Ed Halloran, who is also president of the board, said Gordon’s estimate seems appropriate and that he isn’t personally opposed to such a figure. The immediate priority is addressing outstanding maintenance issues, and spreading out the larger cost over five years makes sense, he said.

Halloran added that he’s perplexed that people have repeatedly asked the “How much?” question. The port is requesting $200,000 a year, no more and no less, he said.

“It’s so simple; I don’t understand why people ask that question,” Halloran said.

Nothing in the ballot measure would legally prohibit the port from spending more per year. Also, the money is for the fairgrounds, but it goes into the general fund, which is a discretionary pot.

Shipshape or not

There’s been much discussion on the condition of the fairgrounds, but just how bad are they? According to South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer, they’re in a lot better shape than he expected. He recently inspected the entire property and identified only a handful of safety issues. One of the food booths near the Pole Building lacks a fire suppression system for a grease fryer, the Black Box Theater needs an additional emergency exit and a few fire extinguishers are needed, but there is nothing that spells financial disaster.

“Overall, the majority of the property was pretty good, especially considering its age, but there are some improvements that need to be made,” Palmer said.

He did note, however, that most of the buildings are so old that they are exempt from modern code standards. Most couldn’t be built the same way today, and renovating them to be compliant would “be almost impossible,” Palmer said.

While that’s good financial news, that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks.

“That said, I should be abundantly clear that if there is a fire in the Pole building, it would probably burn down,” he said.

A fire suppression system isn’t currently required, but that could change if the use was altered significantly, such as making the building into a movie theater or concert hall. Palmer said variables make it difficult to price such an improvement, but guessed it could range from $50,000 to $100,000.

John Olson, Langley’s building official, confirmed that older buildings are exempt from current building codes provided their use remains the same. Significant renovations, however, can trigger code compliance, even full compliance in some cases.

The general rule is that if the improvements exceed 50 percent of value of the building, then it would have to meet code, though there are variables such as if a building is “historic.”

“But we’d have to look at each individual use and area,” he said.

Olson said he doesn’t want to scare anyone off from doing renovations and that remodeling is common in Langley. It’s also “very feasible” in some cases. He pointed to city hall as an example.

Island County leaders are also adamant that while the property has challenges, it’s seen significant improvement in recent years. In the past 10 years, several new roofs were installed, the property now has two commercial kitchens and a pump station was added for campgrounds to name a few of the bigger projects.

“I’m not saying it’s perfect by any means, but I think it’s in a lot better place than it was a decade ago,” Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said.

Similarly, Commissioner Jill Johnson, a vocal cheerleader for the transfer proposal, said she believes the port is the right owner for the property and is doing what it can to help the district to take it on.

“I don’t want to hand them a lemon,” she said.

The county has spent over $100,000 this year on the fairgrounds — that includes grant money for the port — and has a water main project in the works right now, Johnson said.

Funding, value

Gordon and Halloran are resolute that the primary value of the fairgrounds is its cultural significance. And while the district may not have a business plan, they’re banking on the property’s history and soul being the fuel for three primary revenue generators: transitioning the facility into a bustling event center, being a location for businesses during the two months of the year the fair is not running, and sprucing up the RV and campgrounds to make it more enticing to visitors.

According to the Matthews study, the impact of this transformation would be widespread, having positive ramifications for both Langley and surrounding South Whidbey. It estimated that as many 113 jobs would be created  in industries from the restaurant and overnight accommodations industries to retail stores.

It would also, of course, preserve the fairgrounds for continued use.

But not everyone is convinced. At an open house this week, Bayview resident Mike Noblet said the plan appeared to be based on hopeful assumptions. In a later interview, he said that opinion hasn’t changed.

“If I decide to vote for it, it’s for the social good to keep the fair running and things like 4-H,” Noblet said. “I have to weigh that with what I consider rosy projections, that somehow it’s going to be a mecca for commerce.”

“I’m torn,” he added.

He and others have also expressed concern that the income won’t be enough and that the public might be hit with another levy request down the road.

Before taking the measure to voters, the port spent 15 months managing the property and working toward the above goals. According to Jan-Marc Jouas, temporary acting executive director for the port, during that period the port recruited and retained one full-time business, but worked with several more, from a catering company that used the commercial kitchens to a boat storage service and custom golf club manufacturer.

From April 15, 2015 to June 16, 2016, the port’s revenues were $20,000 in tenant leases, $34,000 in total events — that includes the fair — and $30,000 from the campgrounds.

“The total came out to $84,006,” he said.

Though that’s not big bucks, it’s not bad for the first year and neither Halloran nor Gordon expect that they’ll need to hit up voters for more fairgrounds cash.

“I don’t see that in the cards,” Halloran said.

“I firmly believe we won’t,” Gordon said.

Halloran is far more concerned with issues such as parking. There’s currently not much to go around, and while it’s not a problem once a year during fair time, it could become much more of a headache, especially if the district’s event-center dreams come true.

“The more successful we get, the more parking we’ll need,” he said.

Solutions could range from a parking garage in the vacant and adjacent school field, though Halloran says such a structure likely wouldn’t be an appropriate fit in the community, to shuttle systems.

“There are lots of ways we can approach this, but it is the single biggest problem we face,” he said.

Threat of development

A common statement among supporters and skeptics alike is a need to “save the fairgrounds,” but is the mantra accurate? What will happen if the port’s measure is defeated?

According to Price Johnson, the next steps aren’t clear. The county wants to shed itself from the property largely because it’s no longer a county fair but an “area” fair, a change made several years ago. It may seem like semantics, she said, but the county prioritizes funding to basic services: health, police, planning, etc.

“Because it’s no longer a county function, it broke that nexus,” she said, making it hard to justify regular funding.

Though there’s no dedicated back-up plan, she said if the ballot measure fails she’ll likely approach the city of Langley. Other options would follow, and a sale to a private entity isn’t out of the question.

“A majority of the board could vote to divest to sell the property,” she said. “In fact, Commissioner Johnson has been quite clear that’s how she would vote.”

Johnson confirmed she’s made such statements, but clarified that the public shouldn’t be overly worried that the property will become a neighborhood.

“I would close it before I sold it to a developer,” she said.

Both commissioners said that if the property was sold to a private party, they would mandate safeguards similar to those required of the port. In essence, they would prevent the facility from being razed for condos.

Both also believe the port is the right partner, and said they hope the public approves the proposal. The district has more flexibility in terms of funding options, and a transfer would increase local control and say-so over the property’s future, they said.

Gordon agrees. He said he believes the port is currently the best public entity to take over the role of managing and owning the fairgrounds. Skeptics’ concerns aren’t unreasonable, he said, but the reward — economic development and a sustainable fairgrounds — will be worth it.

“There’s a huge financial liability but there’s also a huge asset,” Gordon said.

He stressed that the board has no plans to bulldoze a slew of buildings, make wild and financially irresponsible investments or make major decisions overnight and without input from the community. The steps ahead will be both measured and cautious.

“What we’re going to do is take it one day at a time,” he said.