Port of South Whidbey gains fairgrounds in primary vote

The Port of South Whidbey got what it asked for this week, becoming the proud new owner of the Island County Fairgrounds.

So now that that’s settled, what’s next? That was the question district commissioners pondered at a special meeting Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Tuesday’s primary election decided the property’s long-debated fate. For starters, commissioners agreed they’d need to be at their best for the foreseeable future.

“Now, we really gotta make it happen,” said Commissioner Ed Halloran.

The proposal wasn’t without critics, he said, and the port will need to be “on its toes” in the years ahead and prove the public’s trust was well placed.

The board agreed baby steps were best. Meeting with business tenants and the fair association to identify and devise a short list of “must do” repairs was at the top of the list. It would include things like outstanding maintenance issues, making needed electrical improvements and, most importantly, addressing already identified safety issues, such as adding a required emergency exit to the Black Box Theater.

Working with the county to ensure a smooth transition of ownership was another task the board agreed was essential. These are basic first steps that need to be done, said Commissioner Curt Gordon, and should precede any larger efforts.

“And I think that’s what we told the voters,” Gordon said.

Port commissioners asked for voter approval in the primary election to approve a transfer of ownership of the fairgrounds from the county to the port, and OK a 5-cent property tax hike. The levy increase would provide $200,000 per year in dedicated funding to operate and maintain the aging facility.

The measure passed with 61 percent of voters — 3,763 — casting “yes” votes.

Gordon, however, did have one other suggestion during the special meeting: to ask the county commissioners to “kick in some dough for deferred maintenance that didn’t happen for a number of years.” He suggested $30,000 to $100,000 annually for the next couple years, or at least partner on some grants.

While he didn’t seem overly optimistic that such a request would succeed, Gordon said the district owed it to voters to make the request. He noted that the port agreeing to take on the fairgrounds was no small thing, and that a 5-cent increase will only pay for so much.

“This isn’t a silver bullet,” Gordon said. “This is our best shot at making it work.”

In a later interview, he noted that the county commissioners attached several conditions to the property transfer to which the port commissioners green lighted. Making a request of their own isn’t unreasonable, he said.

“We agreed but we also get to ask for some things as well,” Gordon said.