State-required electrical upgrades at the Island County Fairgrounds will be paid for by Island County.
The $8,789 reimbursement was seen as a victory for the Island County Fair Association, the nonprofit organization that produces the annual Whidbey Island Area Fair in exchange for the use and management of the 12.8 acres.
However, the bulk of the fair association’s request — $18,841 to expose the ceiling of the Pole Building’s dining room — was not funded.
“We were glad to get what we got, but it is an illustration that it’s an uphill battle,” said Diane Divelbess, president of the fair association, during a phone interview after the county work session June 11.
Though the work was already completed and paid for by the fair association, Island County has a lease agreement with the association in which the county is only responsible for capital improvements as funding becomes available.
The association’s leadership recently asked the Island County commissioners for new terms for its lease of the 12.8-acre property.
Essentially, the association said that unless the county agreed to provide additional funding, it would not renew its exiting contract to maintain the fairgrounds.
Instead, the association said it would focus its efforts on running the four-day annual event.
“We’re not one of these agencies that has tax support built into it, therefore we’re always submitting bills to the county,” Divelbess said. “And when they don’t pay for it, it comes out of our hide, and our hide is really thin.”
“What it means is the buildings and the grounds go uncared for, with the best intentions,” she added. “If you’re poor, you’re poor.”
One issue in the lease agreement is clearly defining what work constitutes “routine maintenance” and which undertakings are capital projects.
“That’s one of the places that we certainly will want to define what the long-term solution will be,” said Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson.
The fair association was required to do $8,789 worth of electrical upgrades after an inspection by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.
That included a new water heater.
Exposing the log ceiling of the Pole Building’s dining room was not seen by the county as a capital improvement or necessary maintenance.
On Wednesday, the county agreed to reimburse the association for only the electrical work. Funds for the project will come out of the county’s real estate excise tax contingency budget.
One of the problems the county had with the all of the work is that, under the lease agreement, all alterations to the premises must first have written permission from the county.
For the projects, the fair association did not receive Island County’s approval.
“The fair association did not seek our input or approval before undertaking both of these projects as required under the lease agreement,” said Elaine Marlow, director of Island County’s General Services Administration which handles property management.
The electrical work would have been approved had the fair association first sought the county’s OK, she said.
Commissioner Jill Johnson said she thinks that the county, acting as a property manager, is not set up to quickly respond to a tenant’s needs.
“What I am learning more and more about our fair facility is just that it is costly to maintain and that a county is not designed necessarily to be property managers.”
The payment comes as the county sorts out what course it will take with the fairgrounds.
After stepping out of the fair production business years ago, the nonprofit Fair Association took over, with the county still owning the property and buildings.
Fair Association officials said they believe the arrangement is untenable and too costly for them to keep fixing buildings and also putting on the four-day fair.
For now, the lease renegotiation is on hold.
The county is without a third commissioner, and the fair association is busy planning the Whidbey Island Area Fair two weeks earlier than it was in previous years.
“The reality is that the commissioners are shy of one, and they’ve got enough on their plate,” Divelbess said. “Nobody is in a state of alarm.”