In two weeks, voters will decide one of two fates for the Island County Fairgrounds: to keep it in the hands of the county commissioners or to pass the reins to the Port of South Whidbey.
They should choose the later. While we were initially skeptical about the district’s fairgrounds dreams — we even editorialized that the port should proceed with extreme caution, something commissioners ultimately did — we’ve become believers. The port’s proposal comes with cash, increased local control via accountability of elected officials and enthusiasm, all of which are decidedly lacking under the current model. But perhaps most important of all, it offers the fairgrounds the best chance to continue and to thrive.
The condition and management of the 13-acre fairgrounds has been a hot topic since the release of a study/plan by Anacortes-based Landerman-Moore Associates in 2014. The document called for a $10 million renovation and would have razed about half of the facility’s structures. The plan was rooted in the idea that age, maintenance issues and layout all created challenges that hindered financial viability.
It was not, however, well received. The public raised objections and it wasn’t long before the elected officials and fair proponents alike shelved the controversial proposal.
But while that succeeded in making the plan disappear, the problems remained. The buildings were still old, and the place still wasn’t bringing in enough cash to cover maintenance costs. Island County Fair Association leaders were also unhappy with the county’s level of financial support; they finally threw up their hands and backed away from managing the property altogether.
Thus, we arrive at the port’s involvement. Pursued by county commissioners hungry to find a new steward or owner, port commissioners nibbled the bait by agreeing to manage the fairgrounds for a period of one year. It also sought and acquired grant funding to pay for another study. These were wise and cautious steps.
The Port of Coupeville once was faced with a similar situation when it was asked to save Greenbank Farm. It succeeded, but the price was high. Within 20 years, its $1 million reserve was gone and the district was nearly broke.
On its surface this would seem like a perfect case study of why the Port of South Whidbey should have turned and run screaming from the fairgrounds, but for one key difference. Rather than assuming a debt, it would begin with dedicated revenue as the port’s measure calls for a 5-cent tax hike, which would provide $200,000 in fairgrounds revenue.
This, we think, makes all the difference.
While there’s no doubt challenges are ahead, we don’t believe any are insurmountable. Furthermore, port commissioners have approached the fairgrounds proposal with patience, wisdom and respect for taxpayers. They believe they can do it and have asked for our trust. We see no convincing reason why not to give it them.