Sound Off: Port should prioritize fair over private business


The Fairgrounds and Event Center was created for the fair. Private businesses that lease space there should be required to make room for the fair, not force the fair to make space for private businesses on this public property.

For more than 100 summers, Whidbey residents and visitors have come together to celebrate this island community on the fairgrounds in Langley. The Island County Fair became the Whidbey Area Fair, yet this showcase of family fun, local talent, 4-H kids and animals, homemade arts and crafts, local businesses and civic organizations has been the foundation of this event.

As pointed out in a recent Sound Off, in 2017 the Port of South Whidbey took over public stewardship of this property, contingent upon a successful property tax levy increase from the voters in their district. The voters’ resounding “yes” vote is a testament to how much we love our fair and the history this land embodies.

Continued investments in the fair property are needed to keep it safe, but this needs to be done with respect for the blood, sweat, tears and public tax dollars that have sustained it over time. That’s how we are successful here on the island – we pull together and work it out. The Island County commissioners included language in the transfer documents that made it clear that the fair itself was vital to this community, and the use of this property for that purpose would be protected into the future.

Yet, that is not what we saw this year. Priority rental contracts were given to local businesses long before the Fair Association’s contract was renewed. The port waited until the 11th hour, then demanded that the fair use less space, have less time and offered no reduction in fees. Fairgoers saw how port district officials took away much of the Malone and Burrier buildings’ display space this year. The Fair Association tried to negotiate in good faith, but the Port commissioners had made their decision.

I believe that the traditional fair is a beloved staple to our community, as are many other activities and events that happen on that land. The Port of South Whidbey made their intentions clear in the editorial. They are moving away from their agreement to manage the fairgrounds and event center and instead are prioritizing year-round private enterprise over the annual fair in the use of this publicly funded space. They intend to continue on the path to squeeze the fair’s use of the space, even saying they could use space in the Turner building and other “incubator space” in the future.

Their claim that they can rent out buildings to private businesses and “provide sufficient space for the fair” is not based on the financial and logistical realities of putting on the fair. They need to work this out with the Fair Association directly, with the understanding that it is the anchor tenant. Community members have attended port meetings to try and explain this, without success.

I treasure the experience of walking down the midway, seeing friends and family and viewing the fruits of their labors each summer as we celebrate this amazing community we share. The annual fair event cannot continue without the solid support of its landlord.

If you agree, let the port commissioners know they need to be good stewards of not just the fairgrounds, but also the reason it exists — the fair.

Helen Price Johnson is a South Whidbey resident, a former Island County commissioner and currently the state director for USDA Rural Development.