By CURT GORDON
In 2015, the Island Fair Association advised the Island County commissioners that they would not continue to act as fairground stewards, which put future fairs into jeopardy. Back then, Island County owned the fairgrounds, but Fair Association was the steward. Fair Association members and employees operated and maintained the facility year-round, and the maintenance burden had become too costly. The annual revenue from their major fundraising event, the fair, was not enough to prop up the old buildings any longer. They were siphoning money from the fair to put into infrastructure they didn’t own instead of improving the fair itself. They were done.
A couple of years earlier, while struggling to pay the bills, the Fair Association had found a fairgrounds expert to study the situation and make recommendations. The consultant, with his extensive knowledge of numerous fairgrounds, suggested demolishing a number of the old buildings and creating a new convention center and arena. That didn’t go over well with the locals.
So with no new plan and no help from their landlords (Island County), the Fair Association was ready to hang it up. In a desperate scramble to save the fair event and the fairgrounds, county and Port of South Whidbey commissioners created a plan to have the port take over the fairgrounds on an interim basis. The port would manage and maintain the grounds, providing relief to the Fair Association while studying the practicality of maintaining and renovating all the old buildings long-term.
The port found state funding to perform its own study, this time with the understanding that it would retain and rebuild as many of the existing buildings as possible. The conclusion was that rebuilding and remodeling would take several years and tens of millions of dollars in grant funding, and ongoing maintenance would need year-round revenue from the existing buildings. The old business model of leaving buildings empty 11 months of the year was not sustainable.
Next, the port went to the voters of South Whidbey in 2017 asking if they would like the port to take over the fairgrounds and if so, would they support a small maintenance and operation levy? The voters agreed and the port took ownership.
Within a couple of years, with no maintenance cost outlay, the Fair Association became profitable again, banking more than $100,000 in profit in 2021. The port had clearly met its contractual commitment to Island County to “secure the use of the property for … an agricultural fair” and had reduced the “financial burden on the … Island County Fair Association’s annual fair.” The port, on the other hand, is spending more than it receives in fairgrounds-related income. Maintenance and operation expenses and funds to match grants continue to exceed fairgrounds rental revenue.
You may have noticed that the annual lease negotiation between the port and the Fair Association has become very public, both last spring and again this fall, with prominent local political figures like former county Commissioner Helen Price Johnson and Island County Republican Chairman Tim Hazelo making public demands regarding the terms. But the old model didn’t work 10 years ago and it certainly won’t work now with the incredible increase in building and repair costs lately.
Simply put, the port’s objective is to continue to manage and improve the fairgrounds without placing an increased tax burden on South Whidbey taxpayers. Our goal is to establish a self-sufficient business model that combines rental income and government grants to maintain and rebuild the property. That’s gonna take time and patience and a lot of give and take, but in the long run the Fair Association will have a better fairgrounds for its annual fair and the community will have more events, entertainment, services and classes to enjoy year-round.
Curt Gordon is a commissioner for the Port of South Whidbey.