The rise and fall of downtown Bremerton

Mayor Cary Bozeman goes over the details of the Conference Center with electrical superintendent Gerry Boehm and Mike Smith, apprentice electrician, Thursday afternoon.  - Photo by Christopher Mulally
Mayor Cary Bozeman goes over the details of the Conference Center with electrical superintendent Gerry Boehm and Mike Smith, apprentice electrician, Thursday afternoon.
— image credit: Photo by Christopher Mulally

Downtown Bremerton is in a stage of economic adolescence. The skyline boasts several cranes hovering over construction projects designed to push the city into a renaissance. The city is searching for an identity that will establish itself from its peers and attract visitors with cash-lined pockets.

Above all, it is trying to return to the economic heyday it enjoyed from the founding of the city to the mid-1980s.

While today’s downtown is a visage of empty storefronts and the streets are full of vehicles headed out, it wasn’t always this way.

Downtown Bremerton has always had a constant: the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. According to “Bremerton and Puget Sound Navy Yard,” by Fredi Perry, the shipyard was founded in 1891; by 1894, the shipyard employed nine civilian workers and 27 U.S. Marines (p. 42).

During World War I and II, the shipyard had to increase its production to keep up with the wars’ demands. That meant more work and more workers.

As the workers arrived, mom and pop stores began to spring up to supply necessary services to the workers. Downtown was born. When the stores came, so did the people.

Bremerton resident Louise Nelson, who used to work in a real estate office downtown from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s, said downtown was a great place to be during her tenure.

“I loved being downtown. We were all one big, happy family,” Nelson said. When Nelson had to go to the company’s bank — located three blocks from her office — it often would take an hour to walk there and back.

“I would have to stop and talk to everybody,” she said.

The streets of Bremerton’s downtown were a popular gathering place, she said.

“It wasn’t unusual to see the chief of police and all the city officials out on the streets greeting people,” Nelson said.

The city’s major anchor stores were downtown: Sears, JC Penney and Woolworth’s all were located downtown, along with local restaurants and boutiques. There was always something to do and see and plenty of places to spend money.

Because downtown was brimming with people and businesses, it never dawned on any one who worked downtown that things were about to change.

But they were.

Ron Ross of Silverdale Realty had a vision in the late 1970s. He wanted to build a mall in East Bremerton. He even had the location picked out: it would be on Wheaton Way, across the street from where the KMart now stands.

At the time, Sears, which was then a downtown staple, was looking to move and thought the new location would be perfect.

He figured a mall would bring shoppers to East Bremerton, and if shoppers didn’t find what they needed at the mall, they would drive downtown. He looked at it as a win-win situation, he said.

Downtown merchants didn’t think it was such a great idea, however. A group of downtown business owners formed a group called Bremerton Tomorrow, and filed a lawsuit against Ross, claiming there were procedural errors in his zoning application.

Ross countersued, saying the businesses were violating anti-trust laws by pooling their money together. A four-year legal battle ensued, encompassing 13 lawsuits that yo-yo’d through the state court system, reaching the Washington State Supreme Court three times.

At one point, the case was dubbed “the continuing saga of Bremerton Tomorrow,” Ross said.

In the end, Ross was awarded $2 million. Most of his award went to cover legal fees, he said.

While the failed mall was in the courts, Sears decided to pull out of the project.

“Sears said, ‘We can’t stay with you, we’ve got to go,’ ” Ross said.

Sears, as it turns out, found a new location: the Kitsap Mall in Silverdale.

Soon after Sears left downtown, other stores followed suit: JC Penney and Woolworth’s soon closed up shop and shipped out.

“They messed up big,” Ross said of the downtown merchants. “Had that mall been put in East Bremerton, Bremerton would have had Sears and The Bon and LaMonts. ... The worst of it is, (the Kitsap Mall) gutted downtown Bremerton and that didn’t have to happen.”

Even while the downtown was drying up economically, Bremerton as a whole continued to strive. In fact, September 1990, “Money” magazine named Bremerton as America’s most livable city.

“Snobbish Seattleites still regard Bremerton as a down-at-heel country cousin. But word is spreading about the glories of our No. 1 metropolitan area,” the article states. It also referred to Bremerton as “Bremerwhat?” insinuating that no one had ever heard of the city.

The article describes Bremerton as dependent on the Navy for its economic viability, stating that the city had managed to weather the downturn that affected the rest of the country.

“In large part, that is because a full 49.2 percent of Kitsap County employment is in federal, state, county or city government-related and manufacturing only accounts for 5 percent of jobs,” the article states.

The article also acknowledged the plight of downtown.

“As with so many older American cities, Bremerton’s downtown area needs work badly. ... ‘We were malled,’ concedes Mayor (Louis) Mentor, referring to the booming Kitsap Mall near suburban Silverdale, which lured away most of Bremerton’s retail trade when it opened in 1985.”

The “malling” left downtown Bremerton in the position in which it remains today: in need of renovation and looking to a brighter future. Everyone, it seems, has had ideas of what can shape Bremerton’s future.

While the ideas were flying, Mentor pushed for — and saw to completion — today’s waterfront walkway, which was to serve as a foundation for Bremerton’s future. Another building block fell into place in May, when the Bremerton Ice Arena opened.

Now, downtown’s future is hovering over the city’s skyline in the form of two construction cranes.

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