Impasse puts Whidbey Island Fair in jeopardy

Officials from the fair association and the Port of South Whidbey have reached a stalemate.

With under 100 days to go until the Whidbey Island Fair, officials from the fair association and the Port of South Whidbey have reached a stalemate that puts the entirety of this year’s fair at risk.

The trouble began when the port presented the fair association with a lease excluding the full use of the Malone and Burrier buildings. During fair time in Langley, the buildings have historically been home to open-class, all-ages exhibits, such as quilting, sewing, floral arrangements, canning and baked goods, as well as agricultural displays by community organizations such as the Deer Lagoon Grange, South Whidbey Tilth and Good Cheer. The cool, shady buildings also provide an opportunity for kids to get out of the hot sun and do an art activity or fashion a critter out of vegetables.

The Burrier Building is occupied by full-time tenants that in years past were required to move out for a few weeks during the fair before moving back in. New tenant Whidbey Island Grown, which has 63 cooperative members and 51 producers as part of its Food Hub program, recently moved into the Malone Building.

This year, the port isn’t requiring any of the tenants to move out of the two buildings, per a lease agreement it presented three months late to the fair association on March 31 that, to this day, remains unsigned. In total, the two buildings measure about 11,000 square feet.

The port has owned the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds since 2016, when the public voted on a measure that transferred ownership from Island County and increased the port’s tax levy rate by 5 cents to provide about $200,000 annually to fund facility improvements, maintenance and operations.

“People voted to save the fair and to save the agriculture,” Fair Manager Carol Coble said in an interview with The Record. “They did not vote to have the other part of the fairgrounds be rented out to private businesses on public land.”

Some have argued that the port is violating its interlocal agreement with the county, which includes a provision that the port must “secure the future use of the property for Island County 4-H and an agricultural fair without placing an unreasonable financial burden on the Island County 4-H programs or the Island County Fair Association’s annual fair.”

Island County 4-H is not impacted since none of these activities occur in the Malone or Burrier buildings, although kids are invited to compete in the open-class exhibits, which are run by the fair association. Entry is free of charge.

The issue came to a boiling point at a Port of South Whidbey Board of Commissioners meeting this week. Nearly 20 community members spoke on the topic in the packed room, with some coming from as far away as Oak Harbor to voice their opinions.

Anita Smith of Clinton pointed out that people who have been planning all year for their events are now in jeopardy. A group that makes quilts for veterans had intended to increase its totals, but that too is now unknown.

“If managing and making it work is now taking key buildings from the Whidbey Island Fair, then the death of the Whidbey Island Fair will be on the hands of the port,” she said.

Kim Olmstead of Greenbank said she was there to speak up for the kids, who look forward to entering the exhibits every year. They also learn some of the lost arts from the days of the pioneers, from sewing to canning and preserving food.

Others spoke in support of the port’s decision and Whidbey Island Grown, which provides opportunities for farmers and small business owners to sell their products.

Marian Myszkowski of Langley pointed out the port cannot possibly take care of the fairgrounds without doing something else with the property besides the fair.

“Do we have to say quilters versus farmers? I mean, c’mon,” she said. “There’s got to be a way to incorporate the quilting without taking away a building for a month from small businesses.”

Mary Ann Mansfield, also of Langley, read aloud a letter from Inge Morascini, the executive director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is in favor of better utilization of the fairgrounds. Currently there is a shortage of commercial property downtown, and the fairgrounds can offer a better alternative for business owners.

Ashley Hall and Sarah Bergquist, both of Washington State University Extension of Island County, offered themselves as mediators of the conflict. They both said they will work to ensure that youth have an opportunity to showcase their hard work, ideally sometime during the fair.

But besides this offer, few solutions were discussed during the meeting.

Port Commissioner Curt Gordon reminded the public that the port’s goal, and the ballot issue, specified that the port’s efforts and money is directed at maintaining the fairgrounds, which is not to be confused with funding the fair.

“The goal is truly to keep the fair around by keeping the fairgrounds healthy,” he said.

Port Commissioner Jack Ng said it’s not cheap to maintain the property. The buildings have required a lot of work over the past few years.

“If you guys want to see this fairgrounds preserved for the next generation, you guys need to help the port out too,” Ng said. “There’s a reason why the county gave it to us, because the county could not afford to keep it up.”

Coble said the fair association does not plan to sign the port’s lease agreement in its current form, which leaves out the Malone and Burrier buildings. This means that other aspects of the fair are also on hold, from the carnival rides to the vendors to the entertainers.

“The whole thing is really crazy,” she said. “It’s really stressful.”

According to Coble, the exhibit area is a big draw for visitors of the fair. Every year, the fair association receives a reimbursement from the state Department of Agriculture that is based on exhibitors of the fair.

The fair association has not approached Whidbey Island Grown about sharing space on the fairgrounds.

“That is not our place to do that,” Coble said. “We shouldn’t be put in that situation.”

Currently, the Whidbey Island Fair is scheduled for July 27-30.

Fiber arts, such as sewing and weaving, have historically taken place in the Malone Building during the fair. (Photo by David Welton)

Fiber arts, such as sewing and weaving, have historically taken place in the Malone Building during the fair. (Photo by David Welton)

A Whidbey Island Fair visitor admires the floral arrangement section. (Photo by David Welton)

A Whidbey Island Fair visitor admires the floral arrangement section. (Photo by David Welton)