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Fiber mill advances

Dick Whittick and guard dog Sophie feed grain to a few of his 70 head of alpacas at Greenbank Farm.  Whittick plans to start an alpaca fiber processing mill in barn number two, in the background, left. - Marcie Miller
Dick Whittick and guard dog Sophie feed grain to a few of his 70 head of alpacas at Greenbank Farm. Whittick plans to start an alpaca fiber processing mill in barn number two, in the background, left.
— image credit: Marcie Miller

The Port of Coupeville commissioners have decided to wade, not dive, into remodeling a barn for commercial use at Greenbank Farm.

After last month rejecting a proposal by Greenbank Farm Management Group to solicit bids for remodeling barn number two, the Port commissioners were convinced to put the job out for bid in phases, starting with remodeling the inside.

Dick Whittick, who owns a herd of 70 alpacas at the farm, had approached the Greenbank group about refitting the barn to use as an alpaca fiber processing mill. Whittick said in addition to paying the Port $30,000 a year in rent, the mill would employ local people and contribute to the island’s economy, a principal mandate of the Port.

“A private landowner would leap at the opportunity to lease out the barn,” Whittick said.

In March Commissioner Benye Weber supported the idea to move ahead with the bid process, but Commissioner Ed Van Patten balked, saying he was not comfortable with accepting bids for a project they might not be able to fund. Commissioner Mike Canfield was absent, so the bidding stalled with a tie vote.

Whittick said if the commissioners had not agreed to go ahead, he would have moved on to start the mill in a building he already owns in Freeland. Operating the mill at Greenbank Farm is not the best move financially, Whittick said, but he is a strong supporter of the farm and its mission as a small business incubator. And it’s closer to the herd.

At Wednesday’s Port Commission meeting, held at the farm, Commissioners Canfield and Van Patten were reluctant to commit any of the Port’s $260,000 budget to the project, saying they would prefer to wait until they see how much money the farm is getting from the state.

Van Patten said he felt it was ethically wrong to accept bids from contractors for work they might never actually do.

“Implicit in going out to bid is the feeling that we would go ahead with the project,” he said.

Greenbank Farm is in the running for $1.5 million from the state capitol projects fund, but that is not a done deal yet.

“We will be in (the budget) for sure,” Laura Blankenship, Greenbank executive director told the commissioners. “It’s the amount we are not sure of.”

The governor’s proposed budget includes the full amount, as does the Senate budget unveiled Thursday. Greenbank’s proposed $1.5 million is the fourth largest allotment on the Senate list, tied with the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle’s International District. First on the list is the Seattle Heart Alliance at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, at $5 million. The House budget is not yet out.

Greenbank Farm wants to use the monies for renovating barn number two, replacing the smaller barn number three, and improving roads and parking lots in the area of the barns.

Architect Richard Rhydes of Whidbey Island Architects had given the farm group a preliminary estimate of $190,000 to refurbish barn two inside and out. Blankenship said that estimate included several high ticket items, and felt the cost could be reduced.

Weber introduced a motion to move ahead with the bidding process, but it died with no second.

Port Secretary John Coyne then suggested they consider doing the remodel and bidding in two phases.

The board was more amenable to that suggestion, and Canfield motioned to have the architect split the cost estimate between interior and exterior renovations. Weber and Canfield voted in favor, while Van Patten again voted no.

Canfield said he voted for it with the caveat that the project still depends on state financing, but that the Port may be able to do more if the project costs less.

Board members and farm supporters at the meeting were visibly relieved with the decision.

Tom Clendenin, the first Greenbank Farm president, thought the decision was right on target.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he said. “No is not the answer.”

“I’m happy to see us going ahead to find out costs,” Blankenship said.

Van Patten said he was not unhappy with the move, but still felt they should have the money in hand before going to bid.

Whittick also said the fiber mill would be a showpiece for the alpaca fiber processing industry. As such he expects people to come from all over the world to tour the mill and learn how to develop similar mills in their areas.

This summer Whittick and his Whidbey Island Alpacas will be hosting the “International guru of alpaca fiber,” Ian Watt from Australia. Watt is helping alpaca owners make the transition from raising alpacas for breeding and selling to raising them for fiber production.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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