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Downtown Bremerton: The revival that wasn't

Developer Tim Ryan stands in his half-vacant building in downtown Bremerton. Although some developers and government officials have been saying for years Bremerton is on the verge of booming, some are increasingly skeptical. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Developer Tim Ryan stands in his half-vacant building in downtown Bremerton. Although some developers and government officials have been saying for years Bremerton is on the verge of booming, some are increasingly skeptical.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

Tim Ryan bought three buildings along Pacific Avenue in Bremerton — one on Sixth Street, Fifth Street and First Street — imagining great possibilities, seeing himself as a contributor to a more vibrant downtown district with attractions and conveniences.

“I was all excited. Everything was ready to go,” said Ryan, CEO of Tim Ryan Construction. “That was 18 years ago.”

More than $10 million deep in downtown investments, Ryan is still waiting for his pay-off in an area that’s seen many promises for a better future, but has yet to fulfill city officials’ and developers’ vision of a “destination” neighborhood.

And some, like Ryan, with a personal stake in a downtown that has been promoted for years as “rising” or about to turn a corner aren’t sure downtown Bremerton will ever live up to the hype.

Under former Mayor Cary Bozeman’s leadership, change was the buzzword. In 2002, he rolled out a six-year plan for the area, which led to a facelift that included the ferry tunnel, a marina and the Harborside Fountain Park. The Seattle Times in 2004 declared the town was on the “brink of prosperity” and in 2008 named Gorst — home to Kitsap County’s only strip club — a “neighborhood of the week” for its real estate potential. A $38,500 contract agreement in 2008 between the city and Seattle-based public relations firm Nyhus Communications further fueled the interest surrounding Bremerton’s “revival,” with images of the Harborside park’s fountain popping up everywhere, even on police cars.

Today, Ryan’s 44,000 square-foot, four-story building on Sixth Street and Pacific Avenue — a construction project that finished in 2008 — is one-third full, with its first tenant, Group Health, having moved in less than a year ago. He also plans to build a new restaurant at First Street and Pacific Avenue, where a parcel of land is to be split between Ryan, Third Place Company and the City of Bremerton, which wants to build a park there. The park is under construction.

“I’m still excited about that but sometimes I feel like I’m still alone out there,” Ryan said of his faith in downtown Bremerton. “Certainly I feel stuck to some degree.”

Evidence that Bremerton will live up to its potential is still lacking. But what is evident is the amount of money spent, both private and public, and the faith of some that the good times are just around the corner.

Estimates from both Mayor Patty Lent’s office and former Mayor Cary Bozeman peg public and private investment in downtown Bremerton at more than $320 million since 2002, with more projects of undetermined value to come, but that number varies.

The investments were meant to attract more people and businesses, but for some, it has driven business away and developers are still struggling to make their big ideas happen.

Downtown property owner Lou Soriano, who has worked in commercial real estate in Bremerton for 55 years, said the public construction projects have actually killed business in the area.

“The day they broke ground for the tunnel, we lost half our tenants because of the heavy equipment, dust and dirt,” Soriano said.

He’s trying to bring businesses back now that the disruptive construction is finished, and it’s happening, little by little.

Nonetheless, he said downtown Bremerton’s economy is deteriorating, with no shoppers and hardly anyone wanting to start a business in the area.

“This is the worst economic condition that downtown Bremerton has ever been involved in, ever,” Soriano said. “For a private person to invest, it’s not a very welcome environment.”

In some cases, the efforts of the city not only fell flat, but left business owners angry.

Such was the case for Mary Jo and David Rose, owners of the South Pacific Sports Bar on First Street. Former Economic Development Director Gary Sexton tried to acquire 40 feet of their property by eminent domain for a First Street Plaza project in 2008, saying the city had $1 million of state and real estate excise tax money to develop an area on First Street into a public space. Months after the Roses started a “Save the South Pacific Sports Bar” campaign and a petition drive, the City Council rejected a measure in September 2008 with a 6-3 vote that would have allowed the city to sue the Roses for their property, according to City Council minutes. About nine months later Bozeman resigned to become CEO of the Port of Bremerton, a separate agency from the city.

Developer Mark Goldberg, chairman of Seattle-based developers M.S. Cavoad Co., Inc., lost 14 downtown parcels of property to foreclosure last week after falling $37,000 behind on a $4 million loan. Those areas may have become low-rise development projects and apartment buildings, but no plans had been solidified, Goldberg said.

Goldberg, who developed The 400 condominiums on Washington Avenue and then couldn’t fill them, said the loss of those properties did not severely damage his ambitions for the area. His remaining properties, located between Sixth Street and the condominiums, are slated to become three 17-story towers that may contain a hotel, restaurants and other businesses, but he is stalled by a lack of money to move forward. Goldberg pins developers’ frustrations in Bremerton on the national economy.

“The big challenge is trying to get financing to do anything,” he said. “It has nothing to do with Bremerton, it has to do with what's happening nationally.”

But Ryan, based in Poulsbo, says downtown Bremerton’s woes have existed long before the country’s economic downturn.

“The recession is not the cause of downtown Bremerton not booming,” Ryan said, adding that while progress has slowed down, projects have still moved forward despite the poor economy. “They can’t blame it on the recession alone. This has been a long, long problem.”

Ryan cited a long-running obstinacy of many business owners in the district that has thwarted progress and pushed the Kitsap Mall from Bremerton to Silverdale. The location of the mall north of the city has long been blamed for draining downtown.

Now, Ryan faces a sales problem, trying to convince businesses to locate in Bremerton, but to little avail.

“I’m struggling to get good tenants downtown because they just kind of feel, well, why Bremerton?” he said. “That shows me we haven’t done a good selling point over the years.”

Karen True, director of community development at Bellevue-based Third Place Company, which owns two downtown properties and aims to buy a third, has a more optimistic perspective on the progress of downtown development.

“We do hear people are discouraged, but we're not,” True said. “It's a very different time, so of course things are happening more slowly, but they're happening.”

According to the Third Place Company’s website, construction on the Harborside Commons, known to most as the old J.C. Penney building, was announced for the beginning of 2009. The company envisions a grocery store, bookstore, restaurants and apartments at the site. But the building is still used for parking and True said there is still no time frame set for when the project will start - the company is still working on getting financing and tenants.

“We just don't know when exactly all the pieces will come together,” she said.

Bozeman said downtown’s redevelopment efforts in the past several years have fulfilled the vision he had when he first began his six-year initiative, saying the city has come a long way in a short amount of time.

As for the critics, they need to stand by and wait for the city to grow into its promise.

“People are a little short-sighted and they want everything today,” Bozeman said. “That’s not the way the world works.”

Declining to comment on resistance to the redevelopment plan, he said he has no regrets.

“People have to be patient and they have to understand the big picture,” Bozeman said. “I’m happy with what we’ve done.”

Though not all of the projects planned by Bozeman were completed as scheduled, such as the Harborside-Port Washington Narrows 3.5-mile trail, Mayor Lent said she is moving redevelopment forward and has established several new projects in her nine-month-old administration, such as the Park Avenue Plaza garage project, which is slated to include a cinema.

“I haven’t stopped the momentum of what he started creating,” Lent said of Bozeman.

Meanwhile, Ryan fantasizes about an Irish pub on the ground floor of his Sixth and Pacific building - fitting for the organizer of the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He pointed to an outdoor patio in his building, where he envisions family-friendly restaurant seating.

“I have to be a believer,” he said. “I just wish I knew the magic to change these things.”

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