Biz expo looks for county subsidy

Money from the county’s general fund that has historically been used as membership for the Economic Development Council for its operations may now be taken from a dedicated pool of dollars.

Sharon Hart, Island County EDC executive director, recently appealed to the Council of Governments, recommending that their annual government contributions be bundled and funneled into the .09 percent sales tax rebate funds.

The .09 percent tax rebate has grown into an interest-bearing fund of approximately $2 million available this year to be divvied up among projects that are scrutinized by the Council of Governments. The council, made up of elected leaders from Island County’s municipalities and port districts, passes on its recommendation to the Board of Island County Commissioners, which ultimately renders a decision on the dispensation of the funds.

Hart asked the council’s approval for $67,000, a .08 percent increase from last year. The proposed hike would restore both port districts’ contributions to the annual “Business Expo” held in Coupeville.

“The ports’ money has dwindled and we’re about $8,000 off from past year’s,” Hart said. “The ports have historically contributed to the biz expo. This way the money comes from everyone. We’re shifting the cost to the entities that benefit from this.”

This year’s Uniquely Whidbey Business Expo was an unprecedented success, the EDC director said. With 142 island-based exhibitors representing 2,000 employees, the event provided vendors a venue to showcase their businesses and gain valuable exposure.

“It’s probably the most public thing that we do,” Hart said. “And it’s growing every year.”

She said switching the funds to the .09 pool would free up general funds for local government operations.

“The .09 funds are strictly for economic development,” she said. “Now we won’t be competing for general funds.”

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard was supportive.

“This will recover local funds and use dollars that we didn’t think would be available,” she said. “It’s a nice package.”

Commissioner Mac McDowell was less enamored. He submitted that vendors at other trade shows pay for their space.

“Why don’t we pass on the cost too?” he asked.

Hart said every effort is made to keep costs down, but the smaller, financially-challenged local businesses need the subsidy. If the vendors were charged more money, many of them could not afford to participate in the trade event. The show itself runs about $37,000 and the vendor fees pay for $25,000 of the total. This year saw 27 sponsors also kicking in funds.

Commissioner Phil Bakke attended the expo and said he was impressed by how many small businesses were represented.

“If vendors were charged $500, many of them wouldn’t be there,” he said. “They’re the ones who can’t do mass advertising campaigns.”

The response from participating businesses has been overwhelming, Hart said.

“One-hundred percent of the vendors who responded said they met customers they normally would not have,” she added. “This has become the only trade-type show for some of these vendors.”

The council voted to recommend to the county commissioners that they approve the funding source change.