Whidbey Island Fair in jeopardy of cancellation

— Created May 17, 2023 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

The Whidbey Island Fair could potentially be cancelled should the Island County Fair Association, which puts on the fair, and the Port of South Whidbey, which owns the fairgrounds property, fail to come to terms on a lease agreement within the next few days.

The fair association rents office space year-round at the fairgrounds and has rented the fairgrounds in full during the month of July since the Port took over ownership of the property from Island County in 2017. The nonprofit group has been operating without a lease since Dec. 31, 2022. Members of the fair association board of directors said they expected a new lease to be presented in January, but association president Jason Kalk said that despite asking for a lease or a rough draft of the document on multiple occasions, the proposed lease wasn’t presented to the association until March 31.

The image above highlighted in green shows the area available for the Island County Fair Association to use for this year’s Whidbey Island Fair in the lease agreement proposed by the Port of South Whidbey. Areas highlighted in red are off limits for fair use, and include the Burrier and Malone buildings, labeled C and D. These buildings have traditionally housed non-livestock, non-4-H entries, including quilting and sewing entries, canning, baking, etc.

But fair organizers said the proposed conditions of the lease took the association by surprise, according to Kalk, because two of the main exhibit buildings used for non-livestock, non-4-H fair entries are not part of the agreement because the buildings’ tenants have signed year-round leases. As yet, there is no signed agreement between the two parties, and fair officials say time is running out.

“Our biggest concern is the use of the [Malone and Burrier] buildings and the timing of how and when [fairgrounds management] presented the new lease to us,” Kalk said in a telephone conversation with Whidbey Weekly last week.

Kalk said the two buildings last year held 2,700 exhibit entries from members of the community.

“Those two buildings house, as of last year, 87 percent of our non-animal, non- 4-H exhibits,” said Kalk. “They house all the veggie critters, adult and children’s arts and crafts, plus all the quilting, sewing, canning and baking exhibits. The Burrier building also houses the community information spaces, such as WSU Extension, Waste Wise, and agricultural displays.”

When Island County turned over ownership of the fairgrounds to the Port of South Whidbey in 2017, the agreement stipulated the port would “secure the future use of the property for Island County 4-H programs and an agricultural fair,” without placing any undue financial burden on either the fair association or 4-H. South Whidbey voters also approved a tax levy in 2016 to be used to help with the support and maintenance of the fairgrounds.

“The [interlocal] agreement doesn’t say there is a designated amount of buildings or square footage the Port has to provide, nor does it speak to the number of days it must provide to the fair association,” said Island County Administrator Michael Jones.

In the past, tenants in buildings on the fairgrounds rented space with the understanding that the Whidbey Island Fair took over the facilities in July.

Whidbey Weekly sent several questions to the interim executive director of the Port of South Whidbey, Angi Mozer, per her request, last week. In a brief response Monday afternoon, Mozer wrote, “In the Port’s experience of renting the Fairgrounds to the Fair Association, we do believe it is possible for the Fair event to occur within the space it is allocated this year.”

Mozer went on to say, “We have commitments from both sides (the Port and the Fair Association) to continue negotiations with WSU Extension/4H’s assistance. We’d rather not discuss details while we are still in negotiations, but we would be happy to provide details after negotiations have concluded.”

One of the questions posed by Whidbey Weekly referenced the fact the port’s website read (as of just before 1 p.m. Friday, May 12), “Other businesses also rent space to operate their business the other eleven months out of the year.” When we checked the website Monday afternoon, that wording had been removed.

In a packed Port of South Whidbey Commissioner’s meeting last week at the Freeland Library, several members of the community spoke out against the port’s decision to exclude the two buildings from use by the Whidbey Island Fair.

Kathy Reed/Whidbey Weekly
Port of South Whidbey Commissioners Curt Gordon, left, and Jack Ng listen to public comment regarding a proposed lease agreement with the Island County Fair Association at a meeting last week in Freeland.

“The decision you have made to no longer use this building for quilting and sewing departments, also no longer using it for the canning and baked goods department, and keeping it as a business rental, is unacceptable,” said Anita Smith, who was the quilt and sewing superintendent for the Whidbey Island Fair from 2013 to 2019. “The only place that the quilts and items that take up many hours and years to make and keep safe was at the Malone building.”

While many argued the fair is a longstanding tradition with a rich history on Whidbey Island, others argued the Port must be able to make the property financially viable to allow the fair to continue at all.

“No one wants the fair to go away, but how can the port take care of all that property without doing something else with it?” said Marian Myszkowski, with Goosefoot Community Fund. “Giving an opportunity for small businesses to have a place to operate and incubate, I can’t believe there’s anyone here that doesn’t agree that that is necessary on this island.”

“I think what’s been made clear today is that both sides have very reasonable opinions and very reasonable stands,” said Freeland business owner Ben Criswell. “I want the port to succeed, I want to see the utilization of the fairgrounds. What a fantastic use of the facility, to open it up to small businesses. Are there two better words than economic development? No, so let’s do it. But we cannot do it at the expense of the fair. I know if we work together as a community, we can make this happen.”

Members of the Island County Fair Association maintained there had been no opportunity to negotiate or strike a compromise and that the exemption of the two exhibit buildings came as a shock when they finally saw the proposed lease.

 “This was dropped on us like a bombshell, and we literally had to beg for it. That’s not fair,” said Carol Coble, the fair manager. “We could have had some notice, we could have had some planning. Now I’m wracking my brain, losing sleep over this issue.

“Everybody keeps talking about a compromise,” she continued. “No compromise was ever put in front of us. We didn’t do anything wrong. So bring something to the table so that we can actually figure out a fair. We don’t want to fight with you guys, we want to figure this out and we are running out of time.”

Many at the meeting expressed their concern over the kids who participate in 4-H programs.

“Participating in the fair has broader implications for 4-H’ers, said Ashley Hall, with WSU Extension. “First, they showcase all of their hard work throughout the entire year. Second, it is also a way to qualify for statewide fair. Regardless of what happens, we at WSU Extension will make sure there is some space to showcase and qualify for fair statewide.”

“I understand you have to have money to keep this thing going,” 4-H leader Kim Omsted said to port commissioners. “But there has got to be a way to compromise for both sides to be happy. It’s important to the kids, it’s important to the people that visit. So I’m just asking – begging – please, can we have some kind of compromise for the kids and so people can still participate in other stuff? Back when the pioneers started this, it wasn’t their intention for this to all go away.”

Kalk said he expects a meeting with the port will happen this week. Meanwhile, Island County commissioners took public comment and discussed the issue at Tuesday’s regular board meeting, but that didn’t occur in time to meet Whidbey Weekly’s press deadline. The Whidbey Island Fair is scheduled to take place July 27-30.