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Port renews farm's lease

The uncertain status of Greenbank Farm as a viable non-profit venture was shored up a bit on Tuesday, as the Port of Coupeville’s board of commissioners re-upped the Greenbank Farm Management Group’s lease for what amounts to a 5-year span.

The new lease, prepared by commissioner Ed Van Patten and reviewed during an hour-long closed session last Friday, replaces the one-year lease that expires at the end of the month. The annual management fee remains $40,000.

Despite growing public concern that the farm’s day-to-day operation has become flakey and directionless — too much grass and not enough roots, as it were — the port commission’s approval of the revamped lease was largely a vote of confidence for Greenbank’s executive director, Laura Blankenship.

During discussions with the port commissioners over the terms of the lease, Blankenship requested a multi-year lease for more “stability” to do her thing, and the board apparently agreed with her. The new lease runs for two years, after which it is renewable for another three. For the duration of the lease, specific terms are not up for negotiation; the only thing that can fluctuate is the management fee.

The lease also puts another of the farm’s buildings, the caretaker’s residence at the south end of the property, under the management group’s auspices.

Blankenship said with the lease that expired Thursday, she had one year to pull the farm “out of the hole,” and now she “needs to get going.”

Management group president Clarke Harvey seemed pleased with the new lease. “We think this works well for us, because we’re looking for some stability,” Harvey said on Tuesday.

Van Patten agreed that the lease was a good fit. “I think we’ve done a good job at putting together what needs to be put together for a lease here,” he said. “We’ve got the terms down the way we want them and the way the farm wants them.”

Not all news, however, was so cheery. At the first meeting with the port on Feb. 13, Blankenship reported that she had recently been turned down for a $150,000 USDA grant to rehab one of the barns into an arts center. The Port of Coupeville had agreed to match the USDA grant with a minimum of $50,000 for the project. Minus the grant, Blankenship has asked if the port commissioners would be willing to keep the $50,000 on the table, with Greenbank pursuing fundraising option for their own $50,000 match.

Blankenship speculated that with in-kind work, the fundraising campaign might need to raise only $100,000 total to complete the project.

Greenbank Farm also was skipped over for any of Island County’s so-called 2 percent hotel-motel tax funding, Blankenship said. Hotel-motel tax funding, which this year totaled $84,210, is awarded to agencies that promote and support tourism throughout Island County.

On top of these worries, Mike Canfield, port commissioner and chairman, pointed out that Greenbank Farm’s annual Loganberry Festival on July 27-28 is scheduled the same weekend as the Bellevue Arts & Crafts fair, which is one of the largest such festivals in the state. The commissioners said this would certainly cause a drain on Greenbank’s loganberry attendance.

“It definitely will have an impact on it,” Canfield said.

Greenbank Farm no longer grows loganberries. Also, the management group recently liquidated the gift shop, as well as a bunch of stuff — fixtures and such — from one of its big barns. The wine shop and wine-tasting counter remains, selling a variety of wines from local wineries, including Greenbank’s Logenberry Wine, which is actually produced and bottled in Hoodsport.

In a recent letter to the editor in the Whidbey-News Times, Blankenship responded to concerns that Greenbank Farm “had been going backward.” Such moves as liquidating gift store inventory, she said, was to build a financial base from which a new set of goals could be initiated.

“Our job was to create opportunities,” Blankenship wrote, rather than compete on the open market with local businesses and farmers. The idea is to lease out much of the farm’s space for both farming and events such as weddings and conferences.

Blankenship had bandied several ideas recently about potential capital improvements to Greenbank’s facilities. There is talk of installing a for-lease commercial kitchen in the Jim Davis House, which is located just north of the farm utility building. Also, Blankenship has looked into installing a radiant floor heating system in one of the farms. She recently received a cost estimate of about $21,000 for a full heating system.

“That is the single area that we could make the biggest difference,” Blankenship said. “We could rent that barn year ‘round if we could get some heat in there.”

Currently, work is also being done on the farm’s land. An AmeriCorps worker, Leah Peterson, has been helping Greenbank’s agricultural director Fred Petit in developing a new children’s garden next to the Jim Davis House. There are also plans to create a community pea-patch, and the management group has been receiving proposals for other land usages such as organic livestock grazing.

“We’ve been extremely busy,” Blankenship told the Port of Coupeville commission at the Feb. 13 meeting.

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