This year the Island County Fair Association, which spends a year planning the Whidbey Island Fair each year, overcame a number of hurdles to put the fair on.

Cowgirl stilts 2023
Guys on slides 2023

Since 2017 the Port of South Whidbey has taken over ownership of the fairground property. In an Aug. 8 2023 ‘Sound Off’ opinion piece in the South Whidbey Record, Angi Mozer, executive director for the Port of South Whidbey, spoke of the Port’s need to make the fairgrounds “sustainable, even successful into the future.” In the article she mentions 55 businesses which depend on using the fairground buildings year-round, which provide rent to the Port and supplements the $200,000 in taxpayer revenue the Port uses to maintain the fairground infrastructure.

Bekah Bee Music is one of more than 50 businesses which lease space at Whidbey Island Fairgrounds and Events Center. Bekah graciously vacated her business space while the 2023 Whidbey Island Fair was held in July. Here Bekah poses with her daughter in a photo taken years ago.

However, tensions arose between the Island County Fair Association and the Port when fair planners learned in April that some of the space they depended on for fair exhibitors would be unavailable as businesses occupied, for instance, the Malone Building, a space usually dedicated to quilters, flowers, baked goods, beer, and wine exhibits. The Fair Association learned that its space for exhibitors was going to be reduced by half. For a little while, it wasn’t known if the fair would go on at all. Finally, following considerable angst, the Fair Association decided in early June to go forward with the fair in a limited capacity.

Robin Corley in a tiara presides over full access to the Malone Building for its quilt exhibit in 2022
Due to losing half of its exhibit space in the Malone Building at the 2023 Whidbey Island Fair, Robin Corley found a limited space to teach a fair goer how to use a spinning wheel

Meanwhile, former Island County commissioner Helen Price Johnson wrote a letter as an Island County resident to the South Whidbey Record Aug. 28th, following Ms. Mozer’s Sound Off piece. The former county leader is currently the state director for Washington’s USDA Rural Development Agency. She oversees federal investments in rural America with loan, grant, and loan guarantee programs. I have added David Welton’s photos to illustrate Helen’s request. Here is her letter, printed with her permission:

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Fairgrounds is for the Fair

Letter to the Editor

August  28, 2023

Helen Price Johnson, Clinton

Former Island County Commissioner

The Whidbey Fairgrounds and Event Center was created for the Fair.  Private businesses that lease space there should be required to make room for the annual summer Fair event, rather than what happened this year, when the Fair was forced to make space for private businesses on this public property.

Emily Grubb stands before a quilt she made for a newly wed couple

For more than 100 summers Whidbey residents and visitors have come together to celebrate our island community on the fairgrounds in Langley. The Island County Fair became the Whidbey Area Fair, yet this showcase of family fun, local talent, 4H kids and animals, homemade arts and crafts, local businesses and civic organizations has been the foundation of this event.

4H girl and her black bovine 2023

As pointed out in a recent South Whidbey Record Sound off, the Port  of South Whidbey took over public stewardship of this property in 2017, contingent upon a successful property tax levy increase from the voters in their district. The voters’ resounding YES vote is a testament to how much we love our Fair and the history this land embodies.

Girls enjoy one of the fair’s costumed characters in 2023

Continued investments in the fair property are needed to keep it safe, but this needs to be done with respect for the blood, sweat, tears, and public tax dollars that have sustained it over time. That’s how we are successful here on the island – we pull together and work it out. The Island County Commissioners included language in the transfer documents that made it clear that the Fair itself was vital to this community, and the use of this property for that purpose would be protected into the future.

Curly fries at 2023 fair

Yet, that is not what we saw this year. Priority rental contracts were given to local businesses long before the Fair Association’s contract was renewed. The Port waited until the 11th hour, then demanded that the Fair use less space, have less time, and offered no reduction in fees. Fair goers saw how the Port District officials took away much of the Malone and Burrier buildings’ display space this year. The Fair Association tried to negotiate in good faith,  but the Port Commissioners had made their decision.

The Malone Building in 2023 is bisected by a plywood wall for a private business at the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds and Event Center. Exhibitor space for quilts, flowers, beer and wine were cut to half
Award winning quilt in front of ‘Great Wall,’ which reduced Malone Building exhibit space by half in 2023

I believe that the traditional fair is a beloved staple to our community, as are many other activities and events that happen on that land. The Port of SW made their intentions clear in the editorial. They are moving away from their agreement to manage the Fairgrounds and Event Center, and instead are prioritizing year-round private enterprise over the annual Fair in the use of this publicly-funded space. They intend to continue on the path to squeeze the Fair’s use of the space, even saying they “could use space in the Turner building,” and other “incubator space” in the future.

Their claim that they can rent out buildings to private businesses and “provide sufficient space for the fair” is not based on the financial and logistical realities of putting on the Fair. They need to work this out with the Fair Association directly, with the understanding that it is the anchor tenant. Community members have attended Port meetings to try and explain this, without success.

Chris Balora, right, and Stephanie started Ikaika Bistro last year at the fair, and their food sold out in two days. Thanks to the Fair’s economic incubator which launched them,  they now serve their food at the American Legion and will have a food truck serving Useless Bay Coffee and Double Bluff Brewery in time for September’s Djangofest

I treasure the experience of walking down the midway, seeing friends and family, and viewing the fruits of their labors each summer as we celebrate this amazing community we share. The annual Fair event cannot continue without the solid support of its landlord.

Jake Stewart and his daughter at kids’ art display 2023
West Coast Country Heat 2023
Entertainer Matt Hoar at 2023 Fair
Colorful street performance artist

If you agree, let the Port Commissioners know they need to be good stewards of not just the fairgrounds, but also the reason it exists – the Fair.

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1 Comment

  1. I agree with Helen Price Johnson’s commentary on the Fairgrounds whose primary mission is the Fair. For several years, the Port has put more emphasis on making money rather than assuring that Fair activities, especially 4-H activities which are a critical part of both local and state wide activities, along with other demonstrations such as quilting, flower growing, photography, and many other traditional Fair activities. I hope the Port will go back to that original purpose of the Fairgrounds and not simply concentrate on making money.

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