South Whidbey port looks at taking over fair property management

Boat launches, marinas and leasing land for a cell tower, but the Island County Fairgrounds?

In a surprise move last week, Port of South Whidbey commissioners voted unanimously to consider taking over management of the Langley property, a job currently performed by the Island County Fair Association.

That decision — approved by commissioners Curt Gordon, Dennis Gregoire and Ed Halloran — was nothing more than a promise to begin a dialogue with county officials, but board members made it clear they are interested.

“There’s great opportunity there as an Island County event center,” said Gordon, president of the board. “It fits the port’s mission; it fits the port’s taxing authority. It is probably prudent, at least, that we look into this.”

He emphasized that any future agreement with Island County, which holds the deed to the nearly 13-acre fairgrounds, would be limited to stewardship of the property and not orchestrating the annual event itself.

“I want it to be clear that … we want to support the fair, but don’t want anything to do with running a fair,” Gordon said.

That’s just fine with leading fair association members.

Diane Divelbess, president of the group, said Thursday that the proposal was “exciting,” as it might be a solution to the funding headaches that have plagued the fairgrounds. The problem is so severe that the nonprofit association has threatened to back out of its existing lease with the county to maintain the property and its 27 buildings unless the county agrees to provide the group with more money.

It is not, however, interested in relinquishing its role of putting on the four-day event.

“We have no intention of not managing the fair — we’re good at it,” Divelbess said.

Wednesday’s decision came at the urging of Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson.

Johnson attended the port’s special meeting in Freeland and said recent discussions about the fairground’s future made it clear that Island County should not be in the property management business.

Johnson said she wasn’t there with a formal offer, just a pitch to discuss the possibility of a future partnership.

“What I’m not prepared to do is propose marriage … but I would like to ask the board if we could seriously date — not a one-night stand, but seriously date,” Johnson said.

Earlier this year, fair visionaries unveiled the Island County Fairgrounds Master Plan, a proposal to turn the facility into an island event center over a 10-year period and to the tune of more than $10 million. The plan called for the demolition of about half of the ground’s existing structures.

“What became clear in that process is that for the fairgrounds to reach its full potential, it needs active management,” Johnson said, adding that the port and its mission for economic development may be just the organization to pull it off.

Halloran questioned the financial viability of the proposal and Gregoire the challenges of stacking it onto the port’s existing workload, but both ultimately agreed to investigate further.

Gordon, who seemed the strongest supporter of the proposal, argued that the potential for “economic development” — a port’s primary duty — is there, but it’s also a chance to nurture and preserve something precious.

“(The Fairgrounds) is one of the few last cultural pieces that South Whidbey has,” Gordon said.

“What that means is you don’t go full throttle just because it makes you the most money,” Gordon said. “You gotta make sure you respect the unique rural character and environment of South Whidbey Island, and I think we could do the best job of anybody.”

Divelbess said the association is “quite capable” of managing the property, but not under the terms of its current lease agreement with Island County, which provides $30,000 per year in capital funding.

She maintains the job requires three times that, about $100,000, which is why association leaders recently told the county commissioners they would not renew the existing lease when it expires Sept. 30 unless they are supplied with additional funding.

That ultimatum may have been a precursor to Johnson’s proposal.

“The county knows if we don’t get any money, we’ll pull away from property management,” she said.

Divelbess said having a new landlord might result is some initial “do-si-doing” over event schedules, but that she is  hopeful that such an arrangement would be beneficial to all.

“I’m optimistic, but I’m always optimistic,” she said.

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