County may give Freeland Hall to parks and rec

A historic South Whidbey building may change hands.

A historic South Whidbey building may change hands.

During a board meeting April 20, South Whidbey Parks and Recreation Executive Director Doug Coutts said he was approached by Port of South Whidbey officials, who had been approached by Island County officials about taking over Freeland Hall.

Coutts explained that the county is looking to divest itself of the property, which could be a prime opportunity for the parks and rec district to expand programming while also renting it out for events such as weddings or funerals.

The historic building, which is over a century old, is currently operated by the Holmes Harbor Activity Club, a nonprofit group that is in charge of renting the hall to community members looking to host events.

Coutts said he spoke with a county official who said the county would be willing to fund the parks and rec district to take over the property until next year.

“This is how much they want this out of their area. They’re willing to pay us to take it,” Coutts said. “They were even talking about adding Freeland Park in, but we said hell no because that park floods every year.”

Although he cited some concerns about the age of the building, he also pointed to its commercial grade kitchen as being an asset.

He added that if the parks and rec district were to own Freeland Hall, it should also be in charge of renting it out to the public. He recommended that a part-time employee would need to be hired to manage programs there and facility rentals.

Parks and rec board commissioners were receptive to the idea of the proposed acquisition.

“To me, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and it’s one that if we pass on it, it’ll never come again,” Matt Simms said, adding that the historic building should be preserved for the public’s benefit.

Krista Loercher expressed concern about taking away the responsibility of renting the hall from the Holmes Harbor Activity Club.

“I don’t want them to feel like they’re being pushed out because there could possibly be new owners,” she said.

Coutts said it didn’t “pencil out” to have the group continuing to rent the hall out on the weekends and collecting the revenue while the parks and rec district pays to maintain the facility.

Freeland Hall’s net income was under $10,000 in 2019.

“They’re not making bank on this,” Coutts said. “It is not a money-making entity. I don’t think that’s their motivation.”

Jake Grevé said one of his best friends rented the hall recently and had difficulty getting calls back.

“When I heard about this opportunity, I felt the parks could run it better if the bones and everything else checked out,” he said. “I think some new blood being pumped into it could be a really good thing, while keeping that historic value of it, the community features and the rental space.”

Andy Campbell, president of the Holmes Harbor Activity Club, said in an interview with the Record that members of the club built the hall in 1914 and have been renting it out since then.

He explained that the nonprofit group has a contractual agreement with the county to operate the hall for the benefit of the people in Freeland. The club is in charge of interior maintenance and the county covers exterior repairs.

Over the years the club has put about $40,000 into renovations, including new restrooms. All furniture, dishes and appliances belong to the group. Proceeds from renting out the hall go right back into maintaining the facility. With a starting rental fee of $1,500, it’s one of the cheapest venues in the area.

“Everybody has weddings and funerals. Those are the big ones we have there,” Campbell said. “Not everyone has the money to pay $5,000, $6,000, $7,000 for a hall for the weekend.”

“To keep it affordable for the people in Freeland is a wonderful thing,” he added.

The hall is currently booked out almost through the summer of next year.

Since the pandemic hit, the hall has been operating under complete volunteer service from Freeland residents. The governor’s ban on large gatherings effectively shut the hall down for several months, and utility bills still had to be paid.

Campbell said he was shocked to hear that the county was considering passing on ownership of the hall to the parks and rec district. He questioned the legality of the county being able to offer it to another agency when a contract exists between the county and the Holmes Harbor Activity Club.

“If the county were to turn the hall over to another entity, the Holmes Harbor Activity Club would likely dissolve and be very offended,” he said.