EDITORIAL | Putting fairgrounds future before voters is the right call

Ownership, and perhaps the very soul, of the fairgrounds in Langley was a hot topic of discussion in Coupeville this week.

Keep spinning the same old flat tire and give the Whidbey Island Fair Association another shot at being property managers, or gamble with something new and pass the reins to the Port of South Whidbey: that was the question with which the Island County commissioners wrestled in a joint meeting involving all three entities on Wednesday. A concrete decision has yet to be made, but it seems there’s majority support for the port’s plan for “local” ownership, at least in the sense of putting the issue before voters and letting them decide the fairgrounds’ fate.

We couldn’t agree more with this course. The port commissioners have approached the prospect of management and ownership cautiously and studiously, taking more than a year to reach its conclusions. But, and perhaps best of all, the commissioners also want to waive their legal right to make this important decision themselves and instead let the public — the people who will ultimately pay the bills — decide. We can find little fault in such a plan.

Others, however, aren’t so sure. The fair association’s board of directors is so worried about a port-owned fairgrounds future that it unanimously agreed to whip together an alternative plan to offer the county commissioners, one based on the pre-existing model of a county-owned, fair association-managed property.

The genesis of the attempted coup is based in discontent with the port’s management of the fairgrounds over the past year. We’ll skip all the details, but suffice it to say the fair board and other association leaders weren’t impressed.

More importantly, they’re also worried that a future fairgrounds won’t include them or the annual fair itself. This fear isn’t unfounded. A port study outlines several possible paths to make the property financially sustainable, including charging $45,000 in building rental fees. During focus groups held in 2015, fair association officials say organizers also made comments about changing the name of the fairgrounds, specifically referencing the need to remove the word “fair” from the name. The study also lacks protections for community-based groups, such as 4-H, ensuring they have a place in a financially viable fairgrounds.

Though port officials have testified that the study is only a framework, not a plan, many have accurately noted those are only verbal promises that lack written memorializing in an official document. This is something that could easily be accomplished, and should be. The whole purpose of this exercise is to save the fairgrounds under a model of economic development, not alter it so fundamentally that it ceases to be the property so many love.

To make this work, both have to be accomplished. But then that’s the trick, one no one has been able to pull off so far. The county, lacking the political will to dedicate the necessary resources, failed to make it work. The fair association had its chance too, ultimately calling it quits in a huff for lack of funding. The port commissioners stepped up to the plate, did their homework, and now want a shot. We think they should get it.

Not only does asking voters to make the final decision show a great deal of respect to constituents, but it’s simply smart government. The results will indicate public support for the proposal, which includes a measure to help pay for maintenance costs, but also once and for all force district residents to show just how much they care about the property by agreeing to help pay the bills.

Furthermore, if a vote were to succeed, a port owned property means South Whidbey would have more control over a local icon than ever before, as port commissioners are beholden to area voters. They’re not elected officials with a countywide agenda, the very paradigm that got us where we are today.