EDITORIAL | Port commissioners were right to wait

Resisting a new-car smell that apparently still lingers at the 90-year-old Island County Fairgrounds, Port of South Whidbey commissioners this week agreed the board needs more information before it can decide whether or not to take on the role of property manager.

In doing so, the board exercised restraint and sound judgment as stewards of public funds. One simply doesn’t drive an old Cadillac off the lot without first taking a peek under the hood.

And the fairgrounds is a fixer-upper. Its many buildings are beloved and house memories of generations of South Whidbey residents, but that doesn’t change the fact many are indeed old and old means expensive.

The maintenance costs associated with the facility are such that the Island County Fair Association threw up its hands this year and said it would no longer perform the job of property management unless the county coughed up more funding. This is an organization that commands a veritable army of volunteers, people who have grown up with and love the fairgrounds. If the association, armed with the goodwill of a massive and free workforce, couldn’t make it work then it’s either a sign of disturbing mismanagement or a warning flag that the financial constraints facing the fairgrounds are very real. The latter seems more likely, and it’s this financial reality that the port commissioners are considering taking on.

There are some marked and obvious differences between the port and the fair association, and in the port’s favor is its mission of economic development. Port districts are in the business of creating jobs, stirring the pot of commerce with a basket of prosperity-building tools, the most common of which is infrastructure building.

But building marinas, boat launches or airports isn’t free. If the fairgrounds comes under the management of a government agency such as the port, as opposed to a private entity not encumbered by rules that dictate the expenditure of public funds, major improvements won’t be performed by volunteers — they will be done by the lowest paid bidder.

Yet, there are many examples where governments have successfully leveraged the benevolence of their communities. In Langley, Second Street’s landscaping is the handiwork of the Langley Main Street Association, and the Port of Coupeville has in the past benefited from do-gooders who have helped with small projects on the Coupeville Wharf.

Along with identifying a workable operations plan, the cost of repair, and who would ultimately use the property, port commissioners should consider how it can legally tap South Whidbey’s inspiring capacity for volunteerism.

Considering the fairground’s age and the community’s attachment to the existing footprint, management of the property will be a challenge for any organization. That the port commissioners have agreed to consider the role is admirable, but their decision to exercise restraint and to figure out if it will work first, before moving ahead, is even better.


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