South Whidbey port pushes Island County to accept fairgrounds vote | Corrected

The Port of South Whidbey, which since April 1, 2015 has managed the historic Island County Fairgrounds under a one-year, no-cost lease from the county, on Feb. 24 threatened to refuse to sign a new lease on April 1 if the county doesn’t agree to accept the results of a proposed August referendum by the Port.

The referendum would ask voter’s within the Port’s jurisdiction whether they support the Port’s taking ownership of the fairgrounds and, if so, whether they would let the Port raise its levy limit on their property taxes to help underwrite ongoing fairgrounds maintenance and grant matching.

By the end of Wednesday’s meeting of the Island County Council of Governments, Curt Gordon, the port’s immediate past president, had agreed the port will appear before the Board of Island County Commissioners next month to discuss the possible change in the fairgrounds’ ownership and its timing.

“We’re just not ready to run it for another year,” Gordon initially said at the meeting. “We’ve done our year. We’re ready to move ahead with a plan. If others are confident they can take over, I’m thrilled.”

Gordon said a conversation between Port President Ed Halloran and county Commissioner Helen Price Johnson led him to believe the board wasn’t willing to transfer the 12.8-acre property to the port as quickly as the port wanted.

The port wants to apply for a time-sensitive $100,000 Rural County Economic Development grant to develop the fairgrounds according to a detailed plan. It also wants to put a levy on an August ballot seeking to raise money for purchasing the property.

Gordon added that he was “under the understanding” that Board Chairman Rick Hannold agreed with Price Johnson on the timeline.

Commissioner Jill Johnson responded by giving Gordon a short civics lesson.

“If one commissioner tells you something is a fact, one is not a majority,” she said. “It’s important to understand the whole board has to weigh in.”

By the meeting’s end, Gordon said he’d “make sure” the port makes an informed decision about a new lease based on input from the full board of county commissioners.

Johnson conceded that Island County is not the fairgrounds’ ideal owner.

“The county has failed at its care-taking role,” she said. “It’s never going to be a county priority.” Hannold did not comment significantly on the matter, and Price Johnson was absent from the meeting.

Making any improvements to the fairgrounds, which has some buildings that are nearly 80 years old, virtually requires that the port own the property, said the port’s executive director, Angi Mozer, after the meeting.

“You can’t get money to renovate someone else’s property,” she said.

In its draft Rural County Economic Development grant, distributed at the meeting but not yet filed, the port proposed to restore most of the fairground’s 24 buildings and to produce positive or neutral revenue within 10 years.

The port said the August initiative would seek to raise the port’s levy limit by 5 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, equating to about $200,000 per year, to support the fairgrounds.

Grants would be required despite that income, the application said.

Renovations would create 22 full-time jobs during the first three years, another 21 through year five, a total of 59 during the following “big construction projects,” and then level off at 29 jobs, with about 10 jobs retained after 10 years.

The operation of the annual fair, which is subletted, would not be affected.

• Details of the port’s plan for the fairgrounds are available online in a 90-page “vision” prepared by consultant Martin Matthews in January. For information, see http://fair.whidbeyislandfair.com/Content/pdf/FairgroundsBiz.pdf