Support, skepticism voiced at fairgrounds open house hosted by Port of South Whidbey

Gary Gabelein speaks with Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Ed Halloran during an open house Monday concerning the fairgrounds proposal.

The Port of South Whidbey held the second of two planned open houses on the district’s fairgrounds proposal this week, and was once again met with a small, albeit largely supportive audience.

Approximately 20 people attended the two-hour information session in the Coffman building Monday evening, asking questions that ranged in topic from matters of finances and development plans to future business interest. Though the crowd was sprinkled with skeptics, most said they planned to cast “yes” votes for both the port’s ballot measures in Aug. 2 during the primary election.

Port Commissioner Ed Halloran, who is also president of the board, said the tone and support expressed at the open house was largely consistent with feedback he’s received personally, but acknowledged the low turnouts. Interpreting what it means is tricky, however, as it could signify different things.

“It could mean no one cares or it could mean that everyone gets it,” Halloran said.

“I’m believing the meetings are small because people have the information they need.”

The port is asking for voter approval of a two-part measure: to transfer ownership of the 13-acre fairgrounds from the county to the port, and to OK 5-cent per $1,000 of assessed value property tax hike. Both proposals must pass for either to move forward.

Mirroring the format of the first open house held earlier this month, Monday’s gathering saw a short introduction from port leaders which was followed by attendees being broken up into small groups. Each was led by a port official and focused on a single area, such as ballot measure information or finances.

At a table geared toward future plans for the facility, Clinton resident Anita M. Smith asked about building renovation plans and rental potential. She’s the superintendent of quilting and sewing for the annual Whidbey Island Fair and specifically wanted to know whether the Malone building would be free for off-season events. She has something in mind but said she needs to know soon so she can start planning.

Concerning improvements and changes, port commissioner Curt Gordon stressed that “nothing is going to happen overnight,” but said he didn’t see an obvious obstacle for a quilting-related event. The port’s goal is to preserve the fairground’s cultural value via a revenue-neutral operation, he said, and within those bounds “the sky’s the limit.”

Smith said later that she supports the port’s proposal and will vote for both measures. She described the property as a “gem” that’s full of potential, and said the nickel price is a bargain. She dismissed concerns about the port taking on such an old property, saying the district could address problems as they arise.

“You take one building at a time, one thing at a time, and you fix it up,” Smith said.

At the finance table, Bayview resident Mike Noblet was far less convinced. He said it’s “hard to believe” the port will attract enough commercial tenants during the 11 months of the year the fair is not in operation to make the operation viable.

“It seems to be a rosy projection,” he said.

Port Clerk Molly MacLeod-Roberts said there is evidence to support an off-season business model. Regular and dedicated revenue from the levy hike would open avenues for grant money available to ports, and that those infusions of cash could be used for specific investments, such as adding heat and renovating the Pole Building. Doing so would make it more than just a fair-weather structure, opening it up to a host of events or possibilities.

She pointed to successful businesses such as Fireseed Catering near Miller Lake. Tailoring to the wedding industry, it offers a renovated 6,200 square foot barn and can operate year-round.

“Thanks, but I’m still skeptical,” Noblet said.

He said later that he believes the success of the vision is based on “assumptions” and that he suspects the port will run into trouble and have to come back to the public with an additional levy request.

“I’ll probably be voting no,” Noblet say.

Most at the open house, however, appeared to be in favor of the plan. Paul and Rachel Courteau of Langley said they will cast “yes” votes, saying it appears a “crucial” measure to preserve the fairgrounds and that property has potential with new management.

“Think of all the things you can do here,” Rachel Courteau said.

Lorinda Kay, a Clinton resident, echoed those sentiments, saying she’d like to see a return of events such as the Harvest Moon Ball and the “Pickle Family Circus.” She believes it can happen under the port’s leadership.

“I’m excited about it,” Kay said. “I think it’s a great way to save and utilize the facility in a new way.”