Whidbey Island Fair Association wants regular county funding, new lease

Running the Island County Fairgrounds costs too much, and the managing Whidbey Island Fair Association wants county funding as part of a restructured lease.

In a letter sent to the county commissioners on April 9, fair association president Diane Divelbess wrote that her group could not “in good faith” renew the lease as it exists without any county support for the property. The two-year lease is set to expire in June.

“The way we are now, we are managing but without sufficient funds to manage,” Divelbess said in a phone interview Thursday. “Up to now, the county has given us what [it] has been able to give us.”

That reality rang true with Commissioner Helen Price Johnson. She worked with a steering committee that presented a $10.12 million overhaul of the property over 10 years.

“What we found was the property has increasing challenges,” she said.

“What is clear from the study is the fair association needs to focus on the fair, and that is reflected in this letter,” she added.

Island County, the owner of the 12.8-acre property on Camano Avenue in Langley, has not budgeted any maintenance and operations funding for the fairgrounds for several years. In lieu of that money, the county offered $30,000 to the nonprofit fair association set up to manage the grounds and facility. The funds could only be spent on capital improvements. But recent problems with roofing, stormwater, burst pipes and the Pole Building’s not-quite-commercial kitchen remodel all required well more than the county’s budgeted amount.

“The fairgrounds is sort of an albatross that the county is stuck with, and I think the average public thinks there is plenty of money in the county coffers and wonders what’s the big deal,” Divelbess said.

“We’re just hoping that we can come up with some kind of an arrangement where we’re put into the county’s budgeting process.”

The association’s request to redo its lease comes on the heels of a proposal that would have completely taken it out of the landlord business. Significant opposition arose from Whidbey Island residents displeased with the reimagined property. Out of the dissent, however, came a renewed charge that the property is in some state of disrepair and the fair association needs help. Divelbess said she has 15 applications to join the association that she was sorting through and she and the other fair directors hoped to garner more public support going forward.

Public support for the property’s survival was also noted by Price Johnson as a positive outcome of the proposal’s opposition.

“The upside is that a lot of people are thinking about the fairgrounds,” Price Johnson said. “There’s an opportunity ahead.”

The lease itself is a honeypot: attractive but ensnaring. It allows the managing agency — the Whidbey Island Fair Association

— full use of the property, including the ability to rent out its facilities, and to keep any revenue generated from it. But it also holds the fair association responsible for the property’s and the buildings’ upkeep. When the fair association originally signed the agreement, it thought the four-day fair would generate enough money to handle small upkeep issues.

“It’s actually a good arrangement, it’s just that the buildings are old enough that we can’t rent them for what they’re worth,” Divelbess said.

“With some additional monies, we can probably manage quite well to finally spruce up things and make it possible for some of the buildings, like the Pole Building, to be rentable,” she added. “It would be nice if we got some buildings really up to snuff.”

Price Johnson said that it is possible for Island County to resume active management of the property or to find a new group to run it, which would allow the fair association to solely focus on producing the fair. But the county is in the process of cutting some of its expenses, including possibly passing along stewardship of some park properties over the next few years. Any decision on the property would likely include the opinion of a new county facilities director, currently a vacant position.

The interim Island County facilities director was directed by the commissioners to begin looking at the county’s options and the fair association’s request.

“How it’s managed is really going to be our question,” Price Johnson said. “Is it a county employee, [or] do we enter into a relationship with another entity?”

A date has not been set for the two groups to meet and discuss a new lease or future county funding.


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