Port of South Whidbey’s fairgrounds deadline passes, but deal is still possible

Time is up. The Port of South Whidbey’s imposed fairground deadline came and went Friday with no formal answer from the Island County commissioners.

But parties on both sides say the deal isn’t dead. The county commissioners will discuss conditions for a property transfer on Tuesday, and port leaders say they will listen despite the missed deadline. It’s their moral responsibility not to walk away, said Port Commissioner Ed Halloran, who is president of the board.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” Halloran said. “We wouldn’t allow ourselves to do that. We want them to know we’re serious as a heart attack about this.”

The port’s contract to manage the fairgrounds ended in March. Amidst controversial negotiations, the board sent a letter to the county commissioners March 29 asking them to approve a two-month extension of their lease. It also requested that the commissioners unanimously support the port’s plan to seek voter approval of a property transfer on a fall ballot, and specify any deed conditions they might require.

The port is under a time constraints, as a fall ballot measure carries a May 13 deadline. The board needs to know whether it can move forward or not, said Halloran, and the letter, specifically the April 15 deadline, was meant to urge action by what’s been a divided board.

“We were all in agreement that we needed to apply a little pressure,” Halloran said.

Island County commissioners Jill Johnson and Rick Hannold, Republicans representing Oak Harbor and Camano Island, were largely ready to OK the deal in March but Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, a South Whidbey Democrat, was adamant that several issues still needed to be addressed. For example, she would only support the proposal if non-profit groups such as the fair association and 4-H had clear protections. They couldn’t be forced out to make ends meet.

Price Johnson followed those sentiments with a pointed viewpoint in The Record earlier this month, one that ruffled the feathers of increasingly impatient port commissioners.

She could not be reached for this story by press time.

At the port’s regular meeting this month, board members repeated verbal vows not to oust groups that are intrinsically tied to the fairgrounds and expressed wonder why the topics remain an issue.

“We keep saying it, but it’s not getting through,” Commissioner Curt Gordon said.

The board will not charge $40,000 in rent for the fair association, 4-H won’t be run out of town, and the port is willing to sign a deed that would require any future sale to be OK’d by the public first, he said.

The county commissioner’s response letter, which will be finalized next week, asks for formal and recorded protections. They include: Not putting “insurmountable financial burden” on 4-H and the fair association; preservation of the Pole Building; ensuring a “satisfactory” location for buildings owned by the South Whidbey Historical Society; that the 23-acre property couldn’t be sold without a vote of the people; and finally that an advisory committee be formed of stakeholders for management of the property with a seat for the county and city.

Johnson said she was optimistic that the commissioners will approve the letter, or a version of it. There may be some disagreement about wording, but the framework is good, she said. As the area commissioner, Price Johnson brought up issues her North Whidbey colleagues may not have been aware of, Johnson said. She characterized the conditions as reasonable “community reassurance,” but said she is adamant that they not go too far.

“I feel strongly about not obligating the port to too many fiscal obligations, because they need to be able to make this work,” Johnson said.

The draft letter states that if the port agrees to the conditions, the board will have the unanimous support it’s been seeking.

The district has been managing the fairgrounds without a contract for two weeks. Angi Mozer, the port’s executive director, said it’s left the district vulnerable to liability issues but it hasn’t stopped them from showing up so far, and it won’t on Monday either.

“We’re definitely not going to abandon ship,” Mozer said.