County economic grants to be extended

Four economic development projects that have received county grants will likely get an extension.

Four economic development projects spread out across Whidbey Island that have received grants from the county will likely be getting an extension.

During a work session last week, Island County commissioners discussed the Rural County Economic Development grants, which include the Port of Coupeville’s broadband project, the Port of South Whidbey’s fairgrounds and campgrounds improvements and the city of Oak Harbor’s marina plans.

Chris Michalopoulos, executive director for the Port of Coupeville, said the broadband project, which was awarded a $100,000 grant in 2021, will serve over 1,043 homes on Central Whidbey. About 95% of the design work has been completed. The port district is working with Puget Sound Energy, the state Department of Transportation, Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve and the county on permitting and right-of-way. The port is also considering a private-public relationship with Whidbey Telecom to expand broadband further on the island.

Michalopoulos said he was hopeful that the entire project will be constructed by the first quarter of 2025.

Though the historic wharf, which is maintained by the Port of Coupeville, did receive a $870,804 award in 2019 for pier restoration, Michalopoulos was confident that the majority of the work will be completed by Dec. 31 of this year, making a grant extension unnecessary.

“By the end of 2024, the goal is the wharf building will be completely rehabilitated,” he said.

Following Micha­lopoulous’s presentation to the commissioners, Port of South Whidbey Executive Director Angi Mozer provided an update on the progress of capital and infrastructure projects at the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds and Events Center in Langley. In 2018, the port district was awarded $688,610 for redevelopment, $169,639 of which has been used to date.

So far, the grant has funded three-phase electrical power, an electrical assessment of the Pole Building, a new restroom next to the horse barns that serves the campgrounds and upgrades to the water system to prevent backflow across the property.

“When we first took over the property, the cows and livestock were drinking from faucets and drinking stations, and there was nothing stopping that water from getting back to the city,” Mozer said.

She also addressed further projects the port is hoping to spend the grant money on, including the replacement of a breaker panel to provide heat in the Pole Building, upgraded utilities at the campground and a renovation of the Coffman commercial kitchen and building.

In the past few years, the port district’s priorities have shifted some and bringing heat to the Malone building is no longer a concern since it now has a long-term tenant that does not require the warmth.

In addition, the property-wide issue of drainage is expected to expand the scope and budget of the grant. Mozer spoke about the importance of diverting water away from the most rentable spaces, which includes the Malone, Turner and Burrier buildings. Erosion has also steadily occurred from scores of rabbits burrowing under the buildings.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon expressed concern about the food booths not being operational in time for the Whidbey Island Fair in 2024. In response, Mozer said she had planned for $100,000 to be used to address stormwater and drainage issues. She added that four out of the 13 food booths have been deemed structurally unsound for use in the next fair, but that might be resolved before then.

Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Curt Gordon, who was also present during the meeting, explained to the commissioners that the concrete floors of the food booths are unstable because of rabbit activity and a product needs to be pumped in.

Commissioner Janet St. Clair said she was supportive of the campgrounds for multiple reasons, one of them being as an emergency housing option. Gordon said the city of Langley was opposed to it in the past because of concerns about crime and some other problems, but didn’t elaborate further. The port has hired an electrical engineer, Gordon said, because the biggest concern at the site right now is power. He added that the design costs alone of RV parks are incredibly expensive.

St. Clair said support is needed from the city council and mayor of Langley when the county is investing in economic development and housing solutions, because short-term transitional housing is one of the pieces of that puzzle.

Oak Harbor City Administrator Blaine Oborn and Harbormaster Chris Sublet also led a presentation on improvements to the city’s boatyard. Oak Harbor was awarded $675,000 in 2020 for acquisition of the marina. With the funds, the city is hoping to purchase a business called Mariner’s Haven, which is an active boatyard.

“The challenge with this is it’s not an ordinary purchase. It’s been an extremely difficult and complicated purchase,” Sublet said, adding that the city has been dealing with a number of entities, including the state Department of Ecology, the state Department of Natural Resources, a business owner and a property owner.

So far the city has had the buildings appraised and completed a business plan and two environmental studies. Soil from the site has been sampled for certain chemicals. It was also found that the sewer force main pipe was broken. The city is also looking at taking on the dredging of the marina.

St. Clair asked how many job opportunities the operation of the boatyard would provide, and Oborn estimated it to be in the range of about 10 employees.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said the “shifting sands” of city prioritization makes it difficult for the county to understand which projects are important. She asked if the marina is allowing liveaboard vessels, to which Sublet said there are about 17 or 18. However, the program has been suspended at the moment, and Sublet said one of the challenges is there are not enough restrooms to support them. Johnson said she has gotten phone calls from people wanting to live in their boats, and that it should be considered as another housing option during the current housing crisis.

“Although I’m not trying to turn the marina into a housing project, it’s also a viable lifestyle choice and it needs to not get pushed out of the equation,” she said.

The commissioners showed support for all the projects discussed. The one-year extension of the grants is expected to be approved during a future meeting.

A new restroom and shower facility was recently completed at the campgrounds on the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds. (Photo provided)

A new restroom and shower facility was recently completed at the campgrounds on the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds. (Photo provided)