Bremerton, Washington: Challenges of an Industrial Town


Recent statistics from show that Washington, DC, the winner of the HQ2 contest, ranks second only to San Jose in the percentage of high-tech job listings. This tells us that most of the 238 cities that submitted bids --- despite assurance from Amazon --- were never seriously in the running. If mid-sized places like Indianapolis did not really stand a chance, however, what does that tell us about the economic prospects for smaller, more industrial places that have virtually no software companies?

That’s a trick question, for most cities should not be playing this recruiting game, much less going after an industry whose headquarters are increasingly concentrated in just a handful of "superstar" cities like Austin, Boston and Seattle. Instead, they should be focusing on how to build up the skills and competitive edge they have in the people and companies already there. I was recently asked to develop a revitalization strategy for Bremerton, WA, a hardscrabble Navy town in Puget Sound.

Bremerton, A Gritty Industrial Place

Compared to the Midwest and East Coast, the West Coast has relatively few truly gritty industrial places. In contrast to the Midwest and East, with trees growing out of old auto plants or brick factory buildings, much of the old industrial past has fallen back into the landscape. On the Columbia River, storm waves knock over and pull old canneries into the water. Old sawmills collapse and fall down, their beams sometimes carted away for the houses of rich people like Bill Gates. Waterfronts are given over to condos sold to tech workers.

Located an hour ferry ride west of Seattle on the Olympic Mountain side, it is too far away for most would-be commuters, and a Navy shipyard there which employs more than 15,000 people dominates the waterfront downtown. But although the shipyard and nearby military bases are still major employers, the city itself has not fared as well. Growth has sprawled out 15 miles to the north along a freeway bypassing most of the city, and with the new residents have gone most of the area's better stores and restaurants. An old commercial corridor, "Wheaton Way", has been spiraling downward for the last 40 years, and the local hospital, a major employer, is now moving out of the area.

When the city received a big whack of planning money from the state to develop a turn-around strategy, former Bellingham mayor Dan Pike and I urged leaders there not to simply do another highway beautification effort, since this cosmetic treatment would not deal with the problems of disinvestment. City government hired Dan Pike and me to create a work plan to guide its planning efforts. Rather than pulling out paper and pencils (neither of us draw!), we started instead with figuring out how to make this area work better economically.

Start with A Mission

One of the standard gimmicks of the planning profession is "a day in the life of the future of the place". These usually imagine people getting up in a walkable place and hanging out drinking coffee. They rarely if ever talk about how people make a living, get their kids to school, or get ahead in life. Nor do they talk about who lives there, whether these are highly paid software workers caught up in adopting a rescue dog, blue-collar families rushing their kids off to football practice, or pensioners figuring out how much they can spend on a coffee drink.

Largely we focused on the future of the shipyard and the city's economy.

Bremerton's biggest challenge is an aging workforce and where it will find replacements for the Baby Boomers now working as welders, pipe fitters and electricians.

If the Wheaton Way corridor could become a good place for the next generation of shipyard workers to live, learn and earn a living, it would require a change in the way the place is now seen by the city and changing from "outskirt" to an integrated part of the whole. Right now, Wheaton Way is seen as just another fading first ring suburb, a worse place to live than new suburbs to the north. But getting around those places requires a car; they do not work for kids if their mother is working when they come home from school. Worse, most of the jobs in them are low-paid service jobs. Kids there have little opportunity to see what good work looks like or pays.

A "Chicken in Every Pot" Strategy for Planning and Implementation

To flesh out our strategy for a good place to live, earn and learn, we began talking with the heads of local anchor institutions, including the head of the regional transit agency, the school superintendent, the CEO of the housing authority, the community liaison officer for the shipyard, and the president of the local community college, as well as leading developers and investors. We had two goals in these meetings: 1) to test our idea of creating a large transit village that would become a new center for the corridor close to everything; and 2) to determine how the revitalization plan for the area could be aligned with the strategic plans of these anchor institutions, so that the leaders would have a vested interest in seeing the plan realized.

Here are some of the things we learned:

1. The school district had a big vacant site at a central location immediately adjacent to the library, big parks and ball fields, the post office and a supermarket that would make an ideal place to live for the hypothetical nurse and her two latch-key kids. The site is next door to an operating elementary school, parks and open space with multiple ballfields, one of the best libraries in the region, and a good supermarket. The community center, shipyard, and downtown ferry connections to Seattle are only a short bus ride away. With the right deal structure, the redevelopment of this site could produce a stream of ground lease payments that could be used to supplement local K-12 spending for a hundred years.

2. The transit agency is looking to increase ridership by 25 percent over the next five years and has designated the highway that runs by the school site as a major trunk route connecting major and retail centers in the region. The head of the agency said he would locate a BRT stop at the transit village if the city would coordinate stop lights to speed passage of his buses through the area.

3. A local developer who has been building urban projects downtown said that he needs more sites with a "good sense of place". His customers for this housing could include the local housing authority, which, coming off the development of a Hope 6-like project, has cash in its pocket and wants to increase its permanent portfolio of middle-income housing.

4. The community college, just across the bridge from the site, and a leading training center for jobs at the shipyard, wants to increase its regional visibility and create a better pedestrian crossing to its new engineering school on the other side of the highway. A new round-about there would accomplish this.

Feeding Political Hunger with Mini Oreo Cookies

This all meant that the strategy could be focused on just a few projects that would catalyze change in perceptions of the area. The problem is time. People have quit believing in the area, and everyone is increasingly cynical about the outcome of planning efforts. Grandiose colored drawings used to convince. They no longer do.

Besides credibility, we also saw the need to build the short-term political capital of elected officials. Politicians like ribbon-cutting ceremonies, but on big projects these take three to five years to create. We wanted something that could be enacted in six months or less, to show that elected officials really meant business. I hit on an idea, "Mini Oreo Cookies", small, strategically located projects that can be funded from the excess in current budgets and built without plans or bidding. For example, Rotary Park, immediately adjacent to the new community college engineering complex, has outstanding views of the Port Washington Narrows waterway, a beautiful inlet of Puget Sound, but over the years trees planted there have grown up and obscured that view, not only of the water but of the Olympic Mountains just 20 miles in the distance. On the north side of the Warren Avenue Bridge, it is impossible to cross the highway without becoming a target in a human game of Frogger. Painting a crosswalk there and putting up signs would provide some safety for those bound to cross there. Below that bridge, a bench at the right place would serve many of the senior citizens who now walk there. These are all easy things to do even though current attitude that "this place has been lost" keeps officials from thinking about incremental improvements.

Beware the Bureaucracy

I would like to say that the city is now implementing this plan, guided by a steering committee comprised of the heads of the local anchor institutions. But that is not the case. The city has instead hired a civil engineering firm to oversee the effort, almost a year later nothing seems to have changed outwardly, and when those efforts do get started, they will probably be limited to highway beautification.

What went wrong? First, Dan Pike and I over-estimated the willingness of staff to try a new approach. A department head may have found that they simply did not have the internal capacity to manage something other than a single, standard contract. Or they may have faced turf issues. Or elected officials may not have given them the political cover to try something new. Or, maybe they simply decided that the safest thing was to do nothing. Or state highway officials, administering the money, decided that they would not get a big enough cut if they did not stick to pouring concrete.

Hope Lies in The Civic Sector

In the 1830s, a new French government sent Alexis de Tocqueville to the Mississippi River and the far western reaches of settled America to observe how democracy worked there. Writing in "Democracy in America", de Tocqueville noted that the strength of this new society relied not on its formal government but its network of voluntary organizations, civil society, which largely organized around solving practical and limited problems. In Europe, he observed, they wait for the king to plant a tree. In America, they just do it.

That may prove the key to reviving Bremerton. There are an increasingly large group of Millennials, attracted in large part by lower housing costs, many of them now with newborns and young children, that have made a commitment to the city. Josh Farley, a reporter at the local newspaper, records a frequent podcast on local affairs as well as hosts the local equivalent of the NPR News Quiz at a popular neighborhood pub. Last year Farley helped organize the "Bridging Bremerton Story Walk", a three-mile walk along the city's waterways and over its bridges that had exhibits the area's history.

Most places lack good formal leadership. The real leaders will come from the grassroots. Change can come only when there are motivated people on the other side of the table. The world now knows that recruiting efforts like HQ2 are largely a waste of time. We're beginning to learn to stick to our knitting and to create good places for that. And we are slowly coming back to the idea that the real strength of places lies in organic leadership, not formal government.

Rod Stevens is an urban revitalization and business development consultant based on Bainbridge Island, WA. He has particular interest in and has worked on several projects involving the revitalization of older urban industrial areas, including those in the Central East Bay and Sacramento.

Photo Credit: Joe Mabel [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons