EDITORIAL | Port, fair proposal needs close scrutiny

Once a week the South Whidbey Record publishes a history column, 50 Years Ago Today.

The idea is to remind readers who we are, where we came from and to get an occasional chuckle over lighter stories of the past, such as last week’s column which told how a Record reporter fell asleep at a long ago Langley City Council meeting.

It does something else, however, and that’s reveal a cyclical nature of life on Whidbey Island. People are still talking about the same old stuff — beach access, hospital bonds, kids who made honor roll and preserving pieces of history.

In the decades to come, the column will remind us of Greenbank Farm, the tale of a community rallying together to save a property from development and how the Port of Coupeville sailed to the rescue. It will also tell how the port later nearly went broke under the financial weight of keeping up the over 100-year-old facility — along with bills to maintain the 100-year-old wharf — and that despite the farm’s handful of shops and annual events the facility has never been the shining star of rural economic development that so many dreamed of.

Given those challenges, one would think other ports would run screaming from taking on ancient properties, yet the Port of South Whidbey this week agreed to consider traveling a nearly identical road with the Island County Fairgrounds by becoming its property manager.

Thus, here we go again.

Perhaps there is potential for economic development to be accomplished from the realization of an island event center, but it will be a long and expensive road. Island County Fair Association leaders say they need $100,000 a year to properly maintain the fairground’s 27 buildings. That’s a hefty price tag, and even if paid there’s little guarantee the facility will become a year-round bustling hub of commerce.

One need only look a few miles up the highway for an example, for Greenbank Farm is essentially the same thing — a gathering place for annual events and activities. It’s lovely, adds invaluable charm to Whidbey Island, but unfortunately it’s never really paid for itself. Rather than swimming in revenue, Port of Coupeville commissioners have raided their coffers again and again, making investment after investment, resulting in few jobs and limited economic payoff.

Port districts are not in the preservation business, they are in the economic development business. Their taxing authority is not granted to fund sentimentality, it’s to create avenues for new business and boost employment in their communities.

A property manager needs to be found for the fairgrounds, but it remains to be seen whether the Port of South Whidbey is the best organization for the job. Consider this proposal carefully, commissioners.

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