Five years ago, downtown Bremerton was a ghost town. Shops and restaurants had left the city’s center when suburban strip malls opened in the 1970s and hadn’t returned. Until now.
While Olympia struggled with downtown issues and projects that went nowhere, Bremerton built a waterfront conference center with a hotel; a six-story government building including a new City Hall; and two condominium buildings with units selling for up to $1.7 million. In five years, it has gained 265 residential units.
Bremerton, Vancouver and Bellingham are post-industrial, waterfront cities of similar size, like Olympia. But unlike Olympia, their city governments have led the charge to transform lifeless spaces in their downtowns into places to live, work and play.
“Olympia has the same problems we did before,” said Gary Sexton, Bremerton’s economic development director. Mayor Cary Bozeman said Bremerton hadn’t built a new building in 30 years until the building boom that started five years ago.
Members of The Olympian staff visited Bremerton, Vancouver and Bellingham in search of lessons for the capital city. Officials in the three cities described some common reasons for their success:
• They developed a downtown master plan with specific areas to redevelop and a timetable for doing so.
• They lured developers with tax breaks and other economic incentives, even building starter projects with government money.
• They attracted or built downtown housing.
• They focused redevelopment on one area of downtown and worked out from there.
• They had strong leadership, with strong personalities to set the agenda.
By Matt Batcheldor, The Olympian