Most people who have lived in Puget Sound for more than 10 years likely recall when Bremerton was all but pronounced dead. During the 1980s, the city’s downtown gradually emptied out. Once a lively town, sidled up against a naval shipyard, department stores and shops left for the suburbs. Outlying subdivisions in Kitsap County soaked up the demand for housing. By the 1990s, the place was practically barren, save for a row of sleazy looking taverns facing the water. Indeed, during that decade, Bremerton actually lost population — quite the feat in otherwise robust economic times.
Bremerton might have followed the pattern of countless small towns across the country that have been gutted by big box stores, strip malls and relentless sprawl. Instead, Bremerton reversed its downward spiral.
The remarkable turnaround required some bold actions. Despite previous failed efforts to infuse new life into the old town, a handful of civic leaders took charge and remade Bremerton.
First the city worked with the Washington State Ferry System to build a new terminal. This was no boring, utilitarian fix-up; the terminal's new interior is filled with light, inviting vistors to watch vessels come and go in the harbor. From there, the walk to downtown is visually interesting just about any direction you take.
Then a broad-based effort by residents and business people focused on saving and renovating the old Admiral Theatre. With its landmark Art Deco architecture and classic oversized marquee, the old Admiral is now a venue for many community events, as well as theatrical and musical productions.
The Kitsap County Housing Authority acted as a broker to gather several government agencies, including itself, into one place. The Norm Dicks Government Center was built, acropolis-style, atop the high point in downtown, boasting stunning views of both the water to the south and the Olympic Mountains to the northwest. More important, the center planted a flag in the soil, declaring “We are not folding up. We’re still open for business.”
Next, Bremerton partnered with a development company to replace a waterfront parking lot with a conference center, shops, offices and a hotel built above an underground parking garage. The new Kitsap Center at Harborside complex wraps around a public space, which then terraces down to an esplanade constructed by the Port of Bremerton. Finally, Bremertonians and their families are using downtown's public spaces for events and celebrations, which is giving the community a newfound sense of identity.
These strategic public investments attracted other parties to the table. A new bank and office building went up nearby, replacing a decrepit building and parking lot. Several developments containing hundreds of new condominiums and apartments have been built all along Washington Avenue. Another hotel came along, attracting more shops and restaurants. The city also upgraded the downtown sidewalks with new customized street lights, signs and artwork.
But the city didn’t stop there. It worked with the Navy to transform an unused wedge of property between downtown and the shipyard into Harborside Fountain Park, a unique combination of park, museum, art and water. A clutch of tapered metal structures — recalling the dorsal fins on whales, or if one prefers, submarine conning towers — regularly explode with vertical jets and boisterous splashes of water. Children wait for the impending eruptions, then squeal and run about in the deluge.
Recently, the city expanded the park into the center of downtown, making a creative use of Homeland Security funds to create a clear zone next to the shipyards. But with all the added water features, seating and art, the space is hardly a no man’s land. This dramatic public amenity brought in even more private investment and businesses. Ron Sher, who turned Bellevue’s lackluster Crossroad Mall around 25 years ago, is in the process of retrofitting Bremerton's old J.C. Penny building into retail space with housing perched above.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!