Port renames, rebrands Langley fair property to attract events

Larry Lehtonen, fairgrounds director, now oversees Whidbey Island Fairgrounds and Events Center.

Larry Lehtonen, fairgrounds director, now oversees Whidbey Island Fairgrounds and Events Center.

One of the oldest venues on South Whidbey has a new name — Whidbey Island Fairgrounds and Events Center.

Let’s hope it lasts.

Commissioners with the Port District of South Whidbey voted on the official name of the Langley-based fairgrounds Tuesday.

They chose the name from final suggestions put forth by the fair advisory and port marketing committees after three months of discussion and marketing exercises, said Port Executive Director Stan Reeves.

“The new name reflects the port’s commitment to secure the future use of the property for an agricultural fair while supporting the port’s mission to enhance the economic well-being of the community through other income-generating events,” Reeves said.

This newest title is the latest in an ever-changing name game bestowed upon the century-old sprawling site of historic barns, vendor booths, equestrian arena, campground, commercial kitchens, music stages and renegade rabbits.

For decades, the fair and its fairgrounds have been plagued by a split personality.

The planning and staging of the summer fair itself has always remained in the hands of an all-volunteer group dedicated to fostering agricultural education and displaying talents and abilities of regional residents.

Responsibility for the fairgrounds, meanwhile, has changed hands several times so there’s been uncertainty as to what to call it and who actually runs it.

“It’s very confusing,” said Larry Lehtonen, fairgrounds director who started the new port position last year. “When I first got here, it took me awhile to figure all the players.”

Since it’s a place where the fair takes place for four days and nights every summer, it would seem fairly safe to simply call it the fairgrounds.

Or the county fairgrounds. Or the Langley fairgrounds, since that’s where it’s located.

But it’s not. And the reasons are as brain-rattling as a carnival rocket ride.

Once upon a time the Island County Fair was run by the Island County Fair Board and took place at the Island County Fair Grounds (spelled with two words.) Since the late 1930s, it’s been one of most highly anticipated events of the summer with farm animals, 4-H exhibits, contests, carnival rides and, of course, curly fries.

But then that other island of Island County, Camano, started its own summer fair.

In 2012, organizers of the fair changed to a new form of management with a different relationship with the state and county, changing names to Whidbey Island Fair run by the Whidbey Island Fair Association.

The fairground’s iconic red barns also provide a greeting card entrance into Langley via Camano Avenue, so it’s often called the Langley Fairgrounds.

But that description doesn’t gel well with the Port of South Whidbey, which took over operations and maintenance of the fairgrounds — but not the fair — from Island County on March 31, 2017, after voters approved the transfer.

The port’s goal is to get more year-round use — and revenue — from the 12.7 acres and buildings by getting organizations and businesses to rent space for activities and events.

It’s been booked for weddings, fundraising receptions, bingo games and wood working classes, and it served as a campground and after-hours jamming site during Djangofest Northwest.

The Whidbey Center for the Arts just named the fairgrounds as an official second stage during the five-day 2019 Djangofest, Sept. 18-22.

Whether the name, Whidbey Island Fairgrounds and Events Center, helps with the rebranding of the fairgrounds remains to be seen. But at least it provides guidance for what the fairgrounds manager should call the place he oversees.

“We were trying to upgrade our signs and our Facebook page, but we knew the name would be changing,” Lehtonen said. “Now we know what name to use so we can go ahead informing people that the fairgrounds is more than just a place for a once-a-year fair.”

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