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.
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.
Over the past year, the west edge of downtown Bremerton has seen the opening of an upscale movie theatre complex, a real economic coup, given that the project was put together during the economic downturn. For its part, the city reconstructed a street leading to the theater to make a more attractive connection to the core area. Other new businesses, such as hair salons and cafes are filling formerly empty storefronts.
Downtown Bremerton is still not fully back. Vacant spaces still abound on some streets. And downtown is only sporadically lively. But it is clearly on the way back. This extraordinary progress — in less than 10 years — reflects a growing attitude associated with newer and older cities in Puget Sound: Concentrating new development near public transportation is desirable, but it needs to happen side by side with the development of public spaces that are readily accessible, grand and green.
Economic development isn’t merely about building buildings. It’s about building communities.
Admiral Theater photo courtesy of Dennis Jernberg. Metal sculpture photo by Jack Hunter.