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Bozeman is retiring, but not really

Former Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman stands in the Harborside Fountain Park downtown, developed during his administration. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Former Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman stands in the Harborside Fountain Park downtown, developed during his administration.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

When Cary Bozeman walks around downtown Bremerton, people peek their heads out of buildings to greet him. He gives high-fives to children and says hello to strangers at the ferry terminal.

It’s as if he owns the place, and in a way, he does. As the former mayor, he helped develop Bremerton from “a town that had lost its way” to a city The Seattle Times reported in 2004 was on the “brink of prosperity,” with the Kitsap Conference Center, ferry tunnel and new marina developed during his administration.

After a lifetime of public service, starting with turning the Bellevue Boys Club into the Boys and Girls Club and ending most recently with his stint as CEO of the Port of Bremerton, Bozeman looks forward to stepping down at the end of the year, but makes a clarification.

“I’m not retiring. I don’t believe in retirement,” he said, adding that he hopes to do part-time consulting for cities. “I am putting myself in a position where I can control my own schedule.”

Bozeman, 70, has tried to take time off before. After leaving his post as the mayor of Bellevue and retiring as president and CEO of the King County Boys and Girls Club, he moved to Green Lake in Seattle and did part-time consulting for cities. But then he was drawn to Bremerton for the next stage of his political and public life.

EARLY LIFE

Bozeman was born in Port Arthur, Texas with a “rough childhood” and lived in a New Orleans orphanage after he was abandoned by his parents. After the orphanage, he went into foster care. One of his foster families moved to Seattle, where he attended Lincoln High School and played football, basketball and baseball.

His freshman year of college was spent at Central Washington University, where he was the quarterback of the football team.

“I always like to be in charge of things,” he said.

He later transferred to the University of Washington, where he earned a degree in education.

Bozeman wanted to work with children and become a teacher because teachers were his most important role models growing up.

“Teachers were the most important people in my life,” he said. “I loved school because I didn’t have much of a home life.”

His first job was the executive director of the Bellevue Boys Club, where he stayed for 15 years and started the national movement in the mid-1970s to turn the clubs across the U.S. into the Boys and Girls Club. It started when his daughter, Stacy Bozeman, felt a little left out of her dad’s club.

“I had a daughter that asked me one day, ‘Dad, why can’t I come to the club?’” Bozeman recalled. “In thinking about that, I couldn’t come up with a good answer.”

After the club’s board of directors decided to allow girls membership, the national organization threatened it would lose its charter, but the Bellevue club never turned back. In 1990, the national organization became the Boys and Girls Club of America.

“That’s when I learned that you can make a difference,” Bozeman said. “My mantra’s always been that I leave it better than I found it. I’m happy to say at this point in my life, I think I did.”

BELLEVUE

Before Bozeman helped engineer Bremerton’s facelift, he did the same in Bellevue as a city council member and mayor.

Feeling there weren’t enough public fields for children’s sports and activities, he ran for the Bellevue City Council in 1976 and won, beginning a 16-year tenure, 12 of those spent as mayor, elected by the council.

He counts among his accomplishments the development of Bannerwood Park and leading the fight to build the Downtown Park, an uphill battle that required raising sales taxes in the early ‘80s.

Lee Springgate, director of Bellevue Parks and Community Services during Bozeman’s time as mayor, said Bozeman played a major role in the development of downtown Bellevue and parks citywide.

The development of the Downtown Park was especially contentious. The plan for the 17-acre lot owned by the school district south of Bellevue Square was to use most of it for commercial development, with about five acres remaining for park land.

“Cary said, ‘That’s not good enough for the future of the city, we need all 17 acres,’” Springgate recalled.

The City Council eventually passed a sales tax increase with a 5-2 vote to help pay for the $20 million needed to buy the park, but with all the council members who supported the tax raise at the end of their terms except for Bozeman, he was the only one left a month later to take responsibility for the decision.

“Without his leadership at that crucial time, I really doubt we’d have the Downtown Park today,” Springgate said, adding that it became the “catalyst” for downtown development in the following years.

BREMERTON

Bozeman stepped down as president and CEO of the King County Boys and Girls Club in 1995 and moved to Seattle, where he attempted taking some time off. He did part-time consulting for cities and spent much of his time walking around Green Lake.

But the quasi-retirement didn’t last long. In 1996, he took a part-time position as executive director of the Olympic College Foundation, which collects donations for student scholarships, programs and construction projects, and moved to Bremerton. During his six years there, the job became a full time gig.

“I loved being there with those students who are really trying to improve their lives,” Bozeman said.

Meanwhile, as a former city politician, he kept his eye on Bremerton city government.

“It seemed to be in a little bit of a mess,” he said, noting that he wanted to see the city put more effort into redeveloping downtown. “Why don’t I try to run for mayor here? I think I could do a good job.”

He ran against incumbent Louis Mentor in 2001 and won with a 54.8 percent to 44.5 percent margin.

Serious about downtown revitalization, Bozeman rolled out a six-year development plan in 2002, which included the Kitsap Conference Center, Norm Dicks Government Center, a new downtown fire station, Anthony’s Home Port Restaurant on the water, the Harborside Fountain Park and the downtown marina.

With former Economic Development Director Gary Sexton, he collected more than $245 million in public and private dollars into the projects. The changes were off-putting to some business and property owners who reported losing tenants during the ferry tunnel construction or, in the case of the South Pacific Sports Bar, fought an eminent domain acquisition of their property.

Bozeman said that regardless of the protests he faced, most people were appreciative of the transformation.

“Any time you challenge the status quo, there are always going to be people who are going to oppose it for a variety of reasons,” he said.

Sexton said the main challenge was not resistance, but more reticence and a hesitation on the part of local businesses to make changes. But Bozeman persuaded most to see things his way, he said.

“He was always good at saying, ‘We have a mission,’” Sexton said.

City Councilman Cecil McConnell said he disagreed with Bozeman on a few issues and wishes he had been more proactive about attracting more businesses.

“I tried to get him to get a head-hunter to look for businesses instead of wait for businesses to look for us,” McConnell said. “I felt we had to get out and actually woo businesses to get them to come into the city.”

Regardless, he still appreciates the changes that were made.

“He did make the downtown part a lot prettier,” he said, adding, in reference to the downtown statues built last summer: “Then we screwed it up with the fish and the fisherman.”

Bozeman stepped down as mayor in 2009, months before the end of his second term to take the CEO post at the Port of Bremerton, a decision he struggled with for a long time, he said.

At the time port commissioners offered him the job, he was debating whether to run for a third term. He decided the Port position was a way he could limit himself to two terms and still have a job after he left the city.

“I wasn’t ready to not work,” Bozeman said. “It gave me the opportunity to do something different. I thought a new challenge would be good for me.”

McConnell, council president at the time, was taken by surprise when he found out he would be tapped to serve as mayor pro tempore.

“I was sure he was going to run again,” McConnell said, joking, “I still have not forgiven Mayor Bozeman.”

McConnell and City Attorney Roger Lubovich ran the city in tandem for about five months before Mayor Patty Lent won the November election and was sworn in later that month after election results were certified.

Almost two years after leaving the city, Bozeman still wonders whether he did the right thing.

“I still today have second thoughts about my decision,” he said. “I know I shouldn’t, but I do. Because I loved the job.”

PORT OF BREMERTON

Port Commissioner Bill Mahan said that after Bozeman took over the agency, he brought an expertise in salesmanship, much like he did in Bremerton and Bellevue. Though the Port had information on its projects and meetings available to the public, Bozeman gave the Port a higher profile and increased its exposure to the community, Mahan said.

“He brought to the staff at the Port the knowledge of how important it is to tell the story of what you’re doing and the impact you make on the community,” Mahan said, adding that Bozeman started a new newsletter distributed to more than 500 community leaders and community meetings that allow public input on Port projects.

He is also working to keep the Port’s contract with Safe Boats International, a security boat company that’s expanding and doubling its workforce, Mahan said. Bozeman is working to double their space at the port’s property in Port Orchard and devise a plan to keep them in Kitsap.

He has also helped the Port keep tenants at its industrial properties during the recession, which exceeded expectations. He’s done that by making Port buildings attractive places to work, even building a P-patch at an industrial site, Mahan said.

“When you’re in a competitive market with all the different industrial sites that are around, when you do the little things like that, it plays a big part in tenants staying where thery’re at and attracting new ones,” Mahan said.

Mahan wasn’t surprised that Bozeman is leaving after two years on the job - he knew he wanted to retire at 70.

“We’ve talked about the future and our personal lives and what we have dreamed about,” he said. “He’s always made it clear to me that that was the magic date he wanted to go into retirement.”

LEGACY

Mayor Patty Lent said Bremerton wouldn’t look anything like it does without Bozeman’s redevelopment efforts and he left a lasting legacy.

“I told him when he made his announcement to leave that if I became the mayor, that I could never fill his shoes, but that he left footprints for future mayors to follow,” Lent said.

Lent said the recession makes it difficult to continue city development efforts at the speed Bozeman pushed them - something Bozeman also acknowledged.

“It’s a lot more difficult,” Lent said. “There isn’t money coming from banks, there isn’t money from grants, there isn’t money coming from the federal or state government.”

But Bozeman left a roadmap for her to follow and other projects - such as the Park Avenue Plaza, now under construction - are still moving forward.

“I’m kind of in a position for catch-up and taking his downtown creation and moving it throughout the city,” Lent said.

Springgate, Bozeman’s former Bellevue colleague, said the same energy he brought to Bellevue helped transform Bremerton.

“It was clear what needed to be done in Bremerton and he stuck to his ground,” Springgate said. “He has good imagination, he can see what’s possible. He can take a dilapidated waterfront and envision not a parking lot, but a park and a conference center.”

Bozeman has contemplated running for governor, but now says it’s too late for such ambitions.

“Once a politician, always a politician. You always think about it,” he said. “That campaign is not one I want to take on. If I was 50, I’d probably do it.”

Instead, he hopes to open a downtown office and offer consulting services to city governments and he wants to help advance the development of the Youth Wellness Center planned for the old Bremerton Junior High site - an idea that he put forward as mayor and would include a Boys and Girls Club. But perhaps more importantly, he’ll fish, travel and work in his yard.

“I’ve been working since I was 10,” he said. “So I’m kind of looking forward to it.”

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