Port hears from public on Greenbank Farm management

"There's a new team in the Greenbank Farm management game. But some of the players are familiar.During a special public hearing Tuesday, Port of Coupeville commissioners and about 80 members of the community got a chance to hear from two groups that want management responsibilities over the 150-acre portion of the Central Whidbey farm owned by the Port. One of the organizations, the all-volunteer Greenbank Farm Management Group, has been overseeing day-to-day operations at the farm for the last three years under a contract with the Port. The other group, the recently formed Community Development Team and Whidbey Historical Preservation Society, has been a bit of a public mystery prior to Tuesday's meeting. Before the month is over, the port commissioners need to decide whether to sign a new contract with the present management group - an arrangement that would likely include paying out additional public money for capital improvements - or to go with the new group which will cost them nothing but adds a for-profit business venture into the mix.Greenbank resident Franc Sawatzki acknowledged that his Community Development Team is relatively unknown since it was only put together in December. His proposal calls for a team of private investors, headed by himself, to pump much-needed infrastructure-improvement money into the farm operation. The money would come from direct investment, grants and private donations. Sawatzki is the founder of a venture capital and business consulting firm called Mentors LLC., and co-founder of Wizards of the Coast, the publishing firm behind the popular Pokemon trading cards.In addition to the for-profit Community Development Team, Sawatzki's plan also establishes a non-profit community group that would do the work. Some of the people now working with Sawatzki are familiar faces at the farm. They include Shirley Hendricson, who was recently fired from her post as Greenbank Farm executive director by the current management group; Ginny Snyder, former volunteer coordinator and Sunday Market manager at the farm; and Ashley McConnaughey, who was in charge of public relations during the farm's early days under public ownership.Sawatzki said that under his proposal the farm would get needed repairs to barns and systems, could start making lease payments to the Port immediately and could break even financially by 2002.But not everyone was impressed.They have more money than we do, said Laura Blankenship, the farm's newly hired interim director. But my bias is for community-based operations. Blankenship said the Greenbank Farm Management Group has actually done a good job and has made consistent progress during the past three years. She questioned making major changes now, particularly if it means turning over management to a group of profit-minded investors.Blankenship said that if the current management group is left in place, the community could be assured of a voice but she added that community members also has to dive into the process by attending meetings and contributing ideas and help.But Jack Hoover, a former member of the Greenbank Farm Management Group, said the current management system has ignored public input in the past or simply failed to take any action on suggestions.I resigned due to the lack of moving forward. They couldn't make the decisions to get things done, he said. They were good people, they meant well ... but they couldn't make a decision. I think we should try a new group.The Greenbank Farm Management Group's contract with the Port expired in September and they have since been working on a month-to-month basis. Under the group's plan, the Port is asked to contribute $90,000 this year to make capital improvements and to hire another full-time person to concentrate on fundraising.Like Sawatzki's proposal, the Greenbank Farm Management Group plan claims that the farm can reach a break-even point within a couple years but it contains no provisions for making lease payments to the Port any time soon. Port president Mike Canfield said in his opening remarks that financial backing from the Port may be appropriate at this time.Being a landlord, the Port should have some responsibility, he said.On the other hand, the commissioners seemed open to new ideas. Commissioner Don Sherman said Sawatzki's plan was a different approach from the management plan first put before them three years ago.When we first entered into the agreement ... we were entering uncharted waters. We've learned a lot, he said.Canfield said the Port will accept additional written comment on the management question until Jan. 23. Comments should be addressed to the Port of Coupeville, P.O. Box 577, Coupeville, 98239. "

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