Sound Off: Port has been a good steward of the fairgrounds


Executive Director

Port of South Whidbey

The Port of South Whidbey would like to congratulate the fair association on another excellent fair event this year and we hope it was as financially successful as it has been in recent years past. When the port took ownership of the fairgrounds in 2017, the fair was struggling financially. However, with the port relieving the Fair Association of the burden of having to maintain the property, the Fair Association has been able to regain its footing (both literally and figuratively) to be successful.

The port has been the subject of criticism based on inaccurate information recently. I would like to take the opportunity to provide some accurate information. For those interested in the port’s finances, our records are public, audited by the state and are available upon request at any time. Port representatives can also answer your questions.

In the meantime, we do receive a little over $200,000 in taxes per year to operate the fairgrounds. Over the last five years, we have spent on average $207,000 for operations and extensive maintenance per year and $144,000 per year on capital improvements, including $388,000 to date this year. This totals roughly $350,000 per year on average, which is obviously much more than $200,000. There are 55 small businesses that rely on the fairgrounds property 1-7 days per week. The list of projects completed on the fairgrounds during the port’s tenure is incredibly extensive and is available upon request.

In the meantime, just a few examples include:

• Repairing countless electrical issues on the property (Malone, Burrier, multiple power pole replacements, addressing the power lines that were hanging close to barn roofs along the west border, and many more)

• Bringing 3 Phase power to the facility

• Completely upgraded 4-H bathroom- $400,000 renovation including shower stalls

• Ensuring that the Coffman Kitchen and the Pole Kitchen have adequate infrastructure for commercial kitchen users (which are currently at capacity)

• Performing an extensive re-work of the arena footing including a re-level of the base and purchasing a groomer

Keep in mind that $200,000 per year in property taxes is equivalent to about $15 – $20 per year for the average homeowner in South Whidbey. The impact of the tax dollars dedicated to the fairgrounds to support the community and economic development is significant.

When the port was approached by Island County in 2015 to explore ways to help with the fairgrounds, the Fair Association had been struggling for many years to manage the property and was at its wits end. The association experienced the resignation of many of its board members and staff. There was going to be no fair. This echoed the situation in 1962 when the Fair Association asked the county to take ownership of the property because the Fair Association wasn’t able to keep the property afloat. It was (and is) clear there needed to be a change to the business model to make the property successful.

The port has a vision to not repeat history. It envisions year-round tenants who integrate with the fair, generating year-round revenue at market value. For example, renting out space to metal and wood workers who could use space in Turner who could show off their processes and sell their products during fair, and to rent out brewery incubator space where brewers could sell their craft beer during fair, all while providing sufficient space for the fair, including 4-H and open exhibits.

The port did not have the infrastructure nor the tenants in the beginning so it made sense to give the Fair Association access to the full property while it rebuilds the fair event and its financial stability. However, as already mentioned, we need to be creative and find ways to make the property viable and sustainable, even successful, into the future.

Some Fair Association board and staff members have proven to be combative rather than open-minded partners in achieving this vision. Therefore, in order to avoid continuing down the same unsuccessful path yet again, the port has had to make a few significant but not insurmountable changes unilaterally. We put very careful thought into the changes and paid close attention to fair events in years past to be sure that the fair would be successful with these changes. The impact of closing down the fairgrounds for 30 days for a four-day fair unfortunately does not support our current 55 businesses reliant on the property, nor any business model for making the fairgrounds successful.

When the port considered taking on the responsibility of the fairgrounds property, it was willing to do so without tearing buildings down and while taking into account people’s personal interests. To this day, we are still catering to the local and to Whidbey Island’s culture. There are buildings that need to be demolished for safety reasons, and the port will ensure the proper planning is in place to maintain the integrity of the fairgrounds and what it offers to our community. People have a fondness and attachment to the buildings — the port acknowledges and understands that, and would like the community to know that it is hard to balance this aspect of the fairgrounds with generating enough revenue to support the property.

I personally have been hopeful since day one of the port’s ownership of the fairgrounds property that we can all work together to build an amazing future for the fairgrounds, and I continue to be hopeful.

Angi Mozer is the executive director for the Port of South Whidbey. The Sound Off was submitted with the full support from the Board of Commissioners for the Port of South Whidbey.