The Port of South Whidbey unveiled a conceptual plan for ‘workforce’ housing, Feb. 23, which foresees units built on top of new fairground concession stands.

Port Commissioners from left: Curt Gordon, Jack Ng center, and Greg Eaton, right; with Angi Mozer, executive director of Port of South Whidbey. They stand in front of existing fairground concession stands. The white line behind them shows where a proposed remodel with the addition of rental units would extend.

The plan proposes demolishing, moving and rebuilding of the fairground’s aging food booths, and main stage.

Port commissioners met with four members of the Langley City Council and its staff at a special meeting held at the Whidbey Fairgrounds and Event Center. Councilman Chris Carlson did not attend.

City of Langley Councilwoman Gail Fleming, left, was one of four councilmembers present for the Port of South Whidbey’s walk through presentation.

Port Commissioner Curt Gordon said the existing structures needed to be moved and improved, and that the proposal for 11-14 housing units would help resolve the gap in affordable housing for local working people.

South Whidbey Port Commissioner Curt Gordon holds forth on proposed housing complex at Whidbey Island Fairgrounds & Event Center. Note the white line behind him is where the new edge of the buildings would be

“In the not so long run, they have to go,” Gordon said regarding the food booths, whose Dalton Lane-facing exteriors show signs of rot.

City of Langley council members Craig Cyr, left, and Harolynne Bobis, in red coat, listen to Port Commissioner Curt Gordon describe the Port’s intention to build workforce housing on the fairground’s midway

A draft plan of the concept was presented by Rick Brown of Langley-based Brown Associates Architects. Rental units up to three stories high with 11-14 rental housing units built above reconstructed concession booths, along with a ground-level ADA rental unit were shown. The new plan would extend the building’s footprint into the fairground’s midway.

Front: Rick Brown of Langley-based Brown Associates Architects, with Angi Mozer, exec. director of South Whidbey Port Commission, and Port Commissioner Curt Gordon view a 3D rendering of a workforce housing plan to be built on the fairground midway
Conceptual rendering of proposed rental housing submitted by Langley-based Brown Associates Architects. Note the figure showing scale of the buildings. Rendering from Port of South Whidbey webpage
Overhead view and suggested parking of Port of South Whidbey’s proposal for workforce housing. Plans created by Brown Associate Architects. Photo taken from Port of South Whidbey webpage

A number of concerns remain before the project can go forward. A big consideration is moving the buildings’ existing footprint into the fair’s midway. Currently, the concession buildings and stage extend up to 10 feet into property owned by the South Whidbey School District on Dalton Lane. This arrangement has existed since the Fair Association began construction of its buildings during the 1930s. A Washington State law concerning adverse possession—which could ‘grandfather’ the occupant’s continued right to use the land—will be considered.

This 2016 photo shows the width of the Whidbey Island Fair midway as it accommodates the annual fair parade. Here, former Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson waves to fair goers
The existing Eva Gabelein Main Stage would be demolished and rebuilt under a proposed workforce housing plan/revamping of the fairground’s food vendor buildings. This photo was taken at a previous fair

How far the proposed buildings would extend into the midway was outlined by a line of white tape applied to the asphalt. The visual showed the reality of the midway’s reduction by about 20 feet at its narrowest point near the entrance.

Langley Mayor Pro Tem Rhonda Salerno said the encroachment into the midway impacted her decision.

City of Langley Mayor Pro Tem Rhonda Salerno, left, listens while Meredith Penny, director of community planning, discusses next steps for staff to consider

“This is the first time in all the meetings, even at the Chamber of Commerce meeting, that I attended, that I have heard about the midway being affected to that extent,” Salerno wrote in an email following the presentation. Salerno noted the opinion represented her own thoughts, not that she was speaking for the council as a whole. “The answer before this meeting was always that it wouldn’t be affected. At every council meeting, and through a lot of written public comment, the community is very concerned about losing the fair as the primary use of the fairgrounds, and decreasing the midway has been one of those impositions.”

The Fair Association Board, which governs the planning and hosting of the annual Whidbey Island Fair each July, questions whether the buildings need to be moved, and why the Port has not taken steps to maintain them since its takeover and management of the fairgrounds from Island County in 2017.

Along with rental income from more than 50 tenants who use the event center during the year, except during Fair days—with two tenants granted the right to remain during the fair last year—the Port received $230,038 in rent income and taxpayer revenue. Its expenses were $273,900.

Angi Mozer, executive director for the Port of South Whidbey, emailed a pdf document detailing the Port’s 2023 income, expenses, and plans for capital improvement. It can be viewed here: 202402 Fairgrounds Budget Execution DEC 2023

“With our 1% levy increase each year, the total is about $230,000 that we received in 2023,” Mozer noted. “You can see that we consider half of that to cover maintenance and operations, and half of that to cover capital projects, which include campground improvement, kitchen expansion, electrical upgrades and stormwater/drainage repair.”

Repair of the 4-H Horse barns is an example of a future project on the Port’s agenda. But the need to make them safe last summer found community members volunteering to make the improvements ahead of time. The Eagle Building Company and 4-H volunteers stepped in to repair rotting support beams and faulty electrical wiring in the horse barns last spring.

Rotting horse barn wood siding at Whidbey Island Fairgrounds & Events Center before its repair by Island County 4-H horse club members of Knight Riders and Centaurs. Eagle Building Company stepped in to make repairs. Photo shared by Ben Criswell, president of Eagle Building Co.
Crew from Eagle Building Company and members of the Knight Riders and Centaurs Horse clubs, affiliated with Island County 4-H Clubs, repair horse barns, which had fallen into decrepitude. Photo shared by Ben Criswell, president of Eagle Building Company

“We all were very worried about the dangerous conditions of the barns,” said Kim Olmstead, a 4-H leader the past 35 years, in a previous interview. “It’s been a huge safety issue, not only for the horses, but the 4-H kids, and the public that walks through to see the horses, including women and children in strollers.”

Elise Gabelein, Fair Association president, said while she and the association support the need for workforce housing in the area, the concession stands are not the place place for it. For instance, the proposed midway encroachment could inhibit fire trucks from entering should they be needed in an emergency.

This vintage fire truck parades through the fairground midway in a 2014 photo
This vintage fire truck parades through the fairground midway in a 2014 photo
Elise Gabelein, left, listens while Gwendy Gabelein, right, a Fair Association board member, talks about the historical significance of the Eva Mae Gabelein Main Stage

“The Port is adamant we have to move the booths,” said Gabelein. “We’re saying they’ve been grandfathered in—they’ve been there for so long. The city could allow a variance to the keep buildings where they are. We are saying there are other options for affordable housing, why not just do a remodel of the existing buildings?”

During the Feb. 23 walk through, Gabelein showed me a quote from Eagle Construction, the same company which repaired the 4-H horse barns, which could repair the concession buildings for about $53,000.

Gabelein said the fair association is also concerned by the reduction of fairground space already in place. Last year the fair lost half of its space in the Monroe Building normally reserved for quilters, flowers, baked goods, beer, and wine exhibits, to Whidbey Island Grown, a year -round tenant leasing the space from the Port. And reducing the midway space with the proposal feels like yet another squeeze on the fair’s operations.

“I love that the city council was concerned about not moving into the midway,” Gabelein noted. “It feels like the Port is letting our buildings fall down around them. We feel the Port should be contributing to the building’s upkeep. We haven’t seen the improvements.”

The rationale for adding housing, according to the Port of South Whidbey website, is: “The midway food booths on the Fairgrounds are in need of significant repair. The Port is considering rebuilding the food booths with workforce housing situated above the concession stands. The funding for the feasibility phase of this project is from Island County. $150,000 has been awarded for engineering and architecture, infrastructure assessment, and to pursue zoning updates with the City of Langley. Island County Commissioners have indicated that further feasibility funding should be available to the Port once zoning is approved by the City of Langley.”

One question that many voiced is where would the Port get the money necessary to fund such a project if it is approved.

“I want to reiterate that we are assessing the feasibility of the project,” said Mozer. “Part of this feasibility study is figuring out how much the project could cost, and how that would be funded.”

Regarding a timeline when demolition and construction would occur, Mozer said:  “At this moment we are gathering information as to the feasibility of the project, including what type of variances would be required and allowable. One of the very first things that needs to be assessed is whether the City of Langley would allow the zoning of the property to allow housing on the Fairgrounds property. During that process we are also gathering information on variance options. It is still too early in this process to predict a construction timeline.”

Parking for future residents, water availability, sewer capacity, and improvement of the fair’s aging water and electric systems will be evaluated by the city staff, along with other zoning variances required by the Port’s proposal.

The city council awaits reports from its staff regarding the Port’s plan and will discuss the results in March.

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