Eureka! City granted $6.9 million for conference center

Tempers flared and things got personal at times, but after two days of marathon meetings the Kitsap Public Facilities District board voted 4-2 to split an $11.5 million sales tax rebate between proposals for a scaled-down conference center in Bremerton and improvements to the Kitsap County Fairgrounds.

The board pledged $6.9 million to the Bremerton project and $4.2 million for Fairgrounds improvements at the Dec. 18 meeting. The remainder of the money available from the sales tax rebate — $400,000 — will cover expenses incurred by the board.

“It’s indescribable,” Bremerton Mayor Lynn Horton said. “We’ve worked a long time on this.”

Horton originally requested $7.5 million for the project, which includes a 15,000-square-foot conference center and a 632-stall parking garage, but said the city could “make it work” with $6.9 million.

Horton estimated the entire project — including a privately-developed restaurant, a 100-room hotel and retail shops to be constructed by Minneapolis-based Opus Corp. — will bring the city $350,000 in sales tax revenue which can be put toward supporting the project.

Before the final decision, Horton and her team of architects, developers and financial analysts were pummeled for two nights by intense criticism from two PFD consultants, Andrew Olsen of the Chambers Group and Greg Easton of Property Counselors, Inc.

The consultants were concerned that most conference centers around the state operate at a deficit and that the city’s cost, revenue and demand estimates were skewed.

“We do not believe the financial study represents a truly independent angle,” Olsen said of the 101-page project proposal. “There is not quantitative data related to the size of the groups” which would use the conference center.

However, several lawmakers and community members came to the Bremerton proposal’s rescue at the Dec. 19 meeting at the Eagle’s Nest building on Fairgrounds Road.

The project will involve of a multitude of partners, said County Commissioner Tom Botkin, and although the PFD holds the purse strings, several other agencies will tow the line.

Bremerton mayor-elect and former PFD board member Cary Bozeman assured his former colleagues he would move forward on the development with enthusiasm when he takes office.

Support also came from Cris Gears, the director of the Kitsap County Parks and Recreation Department, who spearheaded the Fairgrounds improvement proposal.

“Any money that goes toward this project will improve parks and recreation,” Gears said.

He added that “$4.5 million won’t get us to our goal, but $11.5 million won’t get us their either.”

Late in Dec. 18 meeting, PFD board members debated whether to call a final vote. Andy Maron, the Bainbridge Island representative, favored informally committing to the Bremerton project and “moving forward together” while reserving the right to pull funding.

Other members disagreed.

“Put up or shut up,” said North Kitsap representative Cy Wyse. “This is ridiculous.”

In the end, Wyse and Poulsbo representative Linda Berry-Maraist voted against the Bremerton project.

“Are we going to spend this money on a parking garage (instead of) recreational facilities for the kids?” Berry-Maraist asked.

A joint planning effort between the PFD and the county will determine how the $4.5 million for the Fairgrounds is spent. The county owns the land and the PFD is financing the project, Gears said, so decisions will be made collaboratively.

Proposed Fairgrounds improvement include installing artificial turf and a new stage in Thunderbird Stadium, improving ballfields and adding new a equestrian facility.

The groups will receive money from a .033 sales tax rebate permitted by state law. To qualify for the rebate, the facility must serve a regional population and cost at least $10 million, including debt service. One-third of the total cost of the facility must be matched by the agency proposing the project, and construction of the facility must commence before 2003.

The money is a refund of sales tax revenue collected by the state, and no new taxes are levied.

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