FAA pressure means pending shutdown next year
July 23, 2012
Holly Smith Peterson
A stampede of hooves pummels the dusty Sanderson Field Fairgrounds arena, where a cavalcade of children on horseback, all in fringed chaps and bright kerchiefs, practice their goat-lassoing skills.
Bustling around two dozen adjacent broad, barn-like buildings, farm hands
and 4-H members ready their animal pens and displays for the thousands of
townies and tourists who will stream through this weekend’s Mason County
Fair & Rodeo.
This has been the scene since 1963, when the event was moved from Shelton
Valley after the Port of Shelton offered its 67-acre property on a 50-year lease. That deal ends, though when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 2013.
And, with much pressure from the Federal Aviation Administration on both the Port and the county to return the site to aviation use only — despite vehement
community protests — this year’s event could indeed be the last. More
“The interesting part is that nobody wants to see our fairgrounds go away,” said Rachel Hanson, who took over the lease from the county two years ago and
then restarted the event in 2011 after a one-year hiatus. “The problem is that everyone just keeps kicking the can down the road.”
The crux of the situation is that the port owns the property. The Hansons manage the site and the events that occur on it. The county has a stake in the resulting tourist and tax revenue. And the FAA ensures that all port property happenings are within the law.
However, over the past two decades, as the FAA began to more tightly govern general aviation airports like Sanderson, the agency has expressed reservations about the proximity of crowds to the runways, as well as safety concerns about some of the buildings.
As a result, in 1997, as part of the Airport Master Plan, the FAA changed the designation of all property south of runway 5/23 — including the fairgrounds site — to “aviation reserve.”
“That’s when all the friction began between the FAA and the community, with the port right in the middle,” said Port of Shelton Commissioner Jay Hupp. “There has been a feeling of betrayal, because the fairgrounds is the essence of the community.”
But it’s not just Mason County residents who rue the re-designation and the impending closure. Businesses are angry about the potential loss to the local economy.
“Everyone is asking what are we going to do about Oysterfest and so many other events that pump revenue into stores and hotels and restaurants,” said Heidi McCutcheon, director of the Shelton-Mason Chamber of Commerce.
Hanson said the site is currently in competition with four others for an annual 10-day event that could attract at least 3,000 visitors.
“Imagine bringing 3,000 more people into Mason County to eat, shop, buy gas and so on. That’s huge,” he said. “But they want a long-term contract, at least five years. It’s really hurting us at this point that they can’t promise that.”
Already, there have been revenue losses to the county. The annual Mason County Truck Show, which also plans events five years out, last year moved to Chehalis.
“That’s a loss of 5,000 people coming into the area,” Hanson said. “And Mason County people have been their main market, but it’s too far. So, last year attendance was down 30 percent.”
The key loss, however, would be Oysterfest — the county’s biggest event, which runs over two days in October, and brings 40,000 people into the region and raises $90,000 for local nonprofits.
“The fairgrounds is vital to the success of Oysterfest,” said Jerry Obendorf, a member of Skookum Rotary and organizer of the event. “It’s kind of like breaking up: sometimes it’s better to know it’s the end than to sit there wondering. If we knew this was our final year, we’d be going flat-out — because if we had to move outside the county, that would probably be the end of it.”
In addition to the loss of the major funding for local nonprofit budgets, Obendorf said there is potential massive loss to regional businesses.
“For Oysterfest, we get our products locally, and the suppliers and restaurants get their products for it locally,” he said. “And then there is the major loss of tourist dollars.”
In the larger scope, it’s not just the immediate business community that stands to lose, Hanson said. The fair and rodeo also are training grounds for competitive youth horseback events.
“If we lose the fairgrounds, all of those kids are going to have to go somewhere else,” Hanson said. “Not only will it be tough for some of them to travel elsewhere to train, but it will also make it more difficult for them to compete. Those spots are very coveted, and they’ll be last on the wait-list since they’re not part of other counties.”
A final factor in the mix is the rezoning to residential of 163 port-property acres on the opposite side of the fairgrounds from the runway. Having the fairgrounds between them, instead of something like another runway, meets the FAA’s requirement for a buffer zone between residential sites and airport activity.
“It makes sense to keep the fairgrounds there because it makes a softer transition between the airport and residential uses,” Hupp said. “If they expand the airport, they will expand the noise — and that causes public complaint.”
The port is taking public comments through July 31 about whether the commission should, as Hupp said, “just say forget it, and accept the resulting closure at the end of 2013 — or submit an alternate proposal that would be most beneficial to the port, the FAA and the community.”
Hanson is hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. She said that if the public doesn’t speak out in support of keeping the fairgrounds — and if the port doesn’t step up and fight for it — the county can kiss it, and next year’s fair and rodeo, goodbye.
“When you’re handling with kid gloves something that’s really special, sometimes you need to be more assertive — or you just might lose it,” she said.
Repeated calls and e-mails to the FAA were unanswered. Comments on the Fairgrounds will be taken through July 31 at www.portofshelton.com.
Writer Holly Smith Peterson can be reached at hpeterson@BusinessExaminer.com.