By HELEN PRICE JOHNSON
The Fair: carnival rides, antique farm equipment, sheep, alpacas, the log show, livestock auctions, the only-at-the-Fair-food. We all have our favorite things we look forward to each August at the Whidbey Island Fair in Langley. I love the fair, and I sincerely hope the Port of South Whidbey, Island County, and the people of South Whidbey can agree on a path forward to save the fairgrounds.
At this time last year, the Port of South Whidbey agreed to take over the management of the fairgrounds from the Fair Association for one year and, during that one-year period, to do public outreach and financial analysis to see what might work for the fairgrounds.
In March, Port Commissioner Curt Gordon wrote a viewpoint in the South Whidbey Record to announce that the port had developed a plan for the fairgrounds, and that it is time for the people of South Whidbey to vote to approve the plan and a tax increase of 5 cents-per-$1,000 of assessed value to pay for the plan.
In a subsequent letter to the Island County commissioners, the port stated that it will not put the fairgrounds property transfer or the tax increase on a public ballot unless the Island County commissioners unanimously vote to support the plan and provide specific requirements for the land transfer to occur. In addition, they have reversed their earlier offer to continue managing the property while the details are worked out, and have now set a mid-May deadline.
My fellow Island County commissioners are not as concerned about the details of the plan as I am, because their constituents on North Whidbey and on Camano Island will not be required to pay the new tax. Only citizens from my district, within the port district (the same boundaries as the South Whidbey School District) will be asked to pay the 5 cent-per-$1,000 tax increase.
I am very glad the port is interested in stewarding the fairgrounds. The future of this property is important to many. Any plan for the future of this property must recognize the vital role of the civic groups and volunteers who are at the heart of it. I want to be sure we take the time to bring these folks along, rather than move too quickly and lose their support.
Here are my concerns:
- Leaders in 4-H and in the Fair Association have doubts about the port’s plan. These groups tell me they do not have enough details to know whether the plan will or will not work for them. It has been challenging for them to respond to an ever-changing timeline from the port commissioners. Mixed messages have made positive negotiations difficult.
- The plan is undefined. A business case report, which the port contracted for, has been referenced, though port commissioners have since said they were not relying on the findings cited there. Port commissioners admit that the numbers are a very rough estimate and may not be realistic. For instance, the plan’s budget calls for the Fair Association to pay rent, far beyond capacity, of more than $40,000. The 4-H rental rates are a concern as well.
- The port commissioners have been unclear as to the use of the proceeds from the 5-cent tax increase. The port says the money will be used to pay for improvements and operations for the fairgrounds, but they also want the flexibility to be able to use the funds for other port projects. Local voters being asked to increase their taxes will want to know how the funds will be used.
Yes, I love the Whidbey Island Fair and the fairgrounds. Island County Facilities Director Larry Van Horn and I are reaching out to 4-H leaders, the Fair Association, and others to better understand their concerns, and we will communicate this information to my fellow county commissioners and the South Whidbey port district to try and bring all parties together.
I do hope that a detailed plan can soon be worked out with the port which provides favorable terms for the civic groups most affected and assurances for local taxpayers. When this appears on a ballot, then South Whidbey voters will decide if they support port ownership of this local treasure, and if they wish to generate the funds needed to sustain it for the future.
Island County Commissioner
Helen Price Johnson