Sound Off: Port should maintain fairgrounds, protect fair


We wish to address the Port’s use of its power in what we assumed would be protecting our rights as the anchor tenant of the fairgrounds. The situation has become an abuse of power.

We recall South Whidbey Port Commissioner Curt Gordon’s assurance in 2016 that “South Whidbey would benefit directly from year-round events at the Fairgrounds, while the 4-H and annual fair events would be assured a permanent home, free of concerns for continued maintenance.”

At the time, Gordon was urging voters to approve a $200,000 a year tax which would “provide needed maintenance and operational funds” to maintain the fairgrounds. He assured voters that protections would “continue to make the property available for Island County 4-H programs and an annual agricultural fair.”

Voters within the South Whidbey School District approved the tax increase in November 2016. In March of 2017, Island County commissioners transferred the fairground property from county ownership to that of the Port District of South Whidbey Island. The county commissioners assumed the port would be good stewards of the fairgrounds and continue supporting the annual Whidbey Island Fair, which occupies all the fairground buildings for three weeks each year.

In the Interlocal Agreement under Port Responsibilities 2.1, the port agrees to “secure the future use of the property for Island County 4-H programs 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, for as long as the Island County 4-H and Island County Fair Association exist in their current forms.”

However, the port did not adequately maintain various buildings such as the Grandstands, Coffman Annex, Swine, Sheep barn and 4-H horse barn buildings, allowing them to fall into potentially dangerous disrepair. Noticing these deficiencies the Fair community stepped up and started repairing plumbing and other safety concerns with only days before the fair.

The fair contract usually comes from the Port in January. We did not receive it until March 31, which caused undue hardship for the fair lining up vendors, entertainment, judges and staff. Additionally, this year annual rental contracts were given to three tenants before the Fair Association’s contract was renewed. In the past the businesses would vacate the buildings to accommodate the anchor tenant, the Whidbey Island Fair for three weeks. This year, after negotiations two tenants were not willing to make space for the Fair. Their buildings were locked, causing reduced space for the fair and confusion as to whether the fair might even take place. The Fair Association was charged for space it did not occupy.

This year, the Malone Building was divided. The Port gave their tenant 70% to accommodate the port’s tenant Whidbey Island Grown, creating a “Great Wall,” which compromised the space used by usual fair exhibitors — quilters, floral, baked goods, sewing, needlework, fiber arts and beer and wine exhibits.

Furthermore, the port informed the Fair Association in April that it would not be allocated its usual exhibitor space and demanded that the fair use less space, have less time and offered no reduction in fees. The Fair Association tried to negotiate in good faith, but the port commissioners would not listen.

Having the use of the Agricultural Building (Burrier Annex) is vital to the success of the agricultural fair. Not being allowed access to the agricultural display, shelving and fixtures caused great distress to those in charge and prevented them from participating in the Washington State Fair and Washington State Grange contests. Some ag groups did not even have display space. The rest were required to share or forced into an outdoor tent. The participation and visitors for just the Grange was down by 50%.

Given the unnecessary and avoidable stress the Port placed on the Fair Association in 2023, we believe the port has failed to meet its responsibilities in maintaining the property and treated the Fair Association in an unreasonable manner.

The gate numbers are close to previous years; however, financial numbers are not the only factor in determining success for a fair. The port’s poor decisions created an enormous amount of extra volunteer hours, required to put on the fair that cannot be calculated. The hours that went into preparing quilts, preserves, flowers and many more items displayed in an adequate space for the fair was dismissed by the Port as less important than the for-profit vendors. The community rallied for a reasonably successful event but morale suffered. The 11,000 square feet removed by the Port from this year’s fair was its heart and soul, right off the midway. The buildings were built by the community for the use of the fair and its activities, not commercial development.

With over a century of hosting the Fair in this community, we ask that the following be honored:

1. Allow the Fair Association’s full use of the Burrier and Malone buildings for three weeks each year as it has in the past.

2. Vacate private businesses from July 15 to August 7th, 2024, as has been done in the past.

This gives the association time to set up, host the fair and clean up per the port’s expectations. The public typically arrives at the Fair the third week in July with premium items and entries.

3. The Port needs to be a good landlord and ensure the plumbing and electrical systems are working properly throughout the property.

4. All tenants and port property must be vacated from historically established buildings and areas allocated for the fair.

5. Create an operations walk-through checklist and include it with our lease. All items must be checked off before the fairgrounds are turned over to the Fair Association each year. The port is responsible for paying for costs of repair and cleaning if the fairgrounds are not in accordance with the Fair Association’s requirements.

6. The Fair Association will perform its own walk-through inspection 30 days prior to the Fair and present its findings to the Port. Another walk-through inspection will be performed by the Fair Association following the fair which will also be reported to the port.

7. The port may not interfere with the fair operations. If the port has any questions or concerns, it must follow an appropriate chain of communication, such as contacting the president of the Fair Association. The port is not authorized to contact fair vendors, entertainers or superintendents.

8. Provide a lease 60 days prior to existing lease expiration.

The Island County Fair Association runs the annual Whidbey Island Fair at the fairgrounds owned by the Port of South Whidbey.