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Council votes to lease boat ramp to port

Port Orchard’s Water Street boat ramp has been damaged over the years when it was used to launch large commercial boats like this 39-foot Riverine Command Boat, manufactured by SAFE Boats International. Now the company is insisting on repairs to the structure as a condition of not relocating its operations to another community. - Courtesy photo
Port Orchard’s Water Street boat ramp has been damaged over the years when it was used to launch large commercial boats like this 39-foot Riverine Command Boat, manufactured by SAFE Boats International. Now the company is insisting on repairs to the structure as a condition of not relocating its operations to another community.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

With hundreds of jobs at stake and a deadline to reach an agreement looming, the Port Orchard City Council on Tuesday night voted unanimously to lease the city's Water Street boat launch to the Port of Bremerton.

The deal calls for a lease rate of $1 a year for 15 years with an option for 15 more.

In return, the port assumes responsibility for the ramp's maintenance and upkeep — including the estimated $400,000 in repairs the structure needs immediately.

The mney will come from residual bonding capacity the port has from projects it is currently funding in downtown Bremerton.

The port commissioners are scheduled to vote on the lease at their Jan. 25 meeting, but all three have indicated they would approve it.

"I don't love everything in this agreement," said Port Orchard Councilman John Clauson. "But it's the right thing to do under the circumstances."

The port has also pledged to work together on a comprehensive plan for the Port Orchard waterfront, including a proposed swap of parking spaces on a lot shared by the city and the port, and the city’s plan to build a waterfront pedestrian pathway.

The ramp has been deteriorating for years, but its condition became a source of controversy last month when officials from SAFE Boats International, which leases space in the port's South Kitsap Industrial Area, announced their intentions to double the size of the company's workforce from 300 to 600 — but only if certain conditions were met.

The most significant of these was repairs being made to the boat launch, which the city owns and SAFE Boats uses extensively to launch the rigid-hull vessels it manufactures nearby.

The company imposed a deadline of Jan. 24 by which an agreement on its demands needed to be reached or it would consider relocating to another community.

City officials, however, were reluctant to assume the cost of repairs given that much of the damage to the concrete ramp was caused by SAFE Boats using semi-trailers to launch large, commercial vessels on a structure that was only designed for smaller pleasure craft.

Port Orchard Mayor Lary Coppola said the city was negotiating with the company to make the repairs last fall when SAFE Boats was acquired by new owners who refused to help pay for the work and threatened to move if an agreement to fix the structure wasn't reached quickly.

The city, in turn, approached the Port of Bremerton about funding the repairs, noting that SAFE Boats is a port client and that the port had spent tens of millions in downtown Bremerton but far less in Port Orchard over the years.

In December, port officials said they would repair the ramp, but only if the city turned over ownership of the property on which it sits.

The council declined that condition, however, fearing that control of the strategically located parcel would give the port too much say in the ongoing redevelopment of the Port Orchard waterfront and downtown core.

Complicating negotiations further are years of prickly relations between the two parties over a variety of issues, most recently the port's reluctance to allow the city's proposed pedestrian walkway project to run through a small park the port created at the Port Orchard Marina.

Councilman Jerry Childs, in fact, said last week he wouldn't vote for any lease deal that didn't also address the walkway.

Fellow members Fred Olin and Rob Putaansuu were reportedly prepared to vote against it on that basis, too.

However, Councilwoman Carolyn Powers on Tuesday night implored her peers to approve the lease compromise, which Coppola had suggested weeks ago.

"Ideally, I'd like to do something that includes the pedestrian walkway, too," she said. "But if we can't do that now, it shouldn't keep us from making any deal at all. If we have to do these projects one at a time, so be it. Now let's get on with it."

Port Commissioner Larry Stokes, who explained he was president of the port commission years ago when the park was built, conceded, “I’ve been the burr under your saddle when it comes to the park."

But Stokes, his voice cracking with emotion, vowed not to let it stand in the way of doing what's best for the community.

“I’m real protective of the park,” he said. “But I want you to know I love Port Orchard. I’m not against Port Orchard, and I want to do everything I can to work with the city council and develop that waterfront the best way for our citizens and for all the people. If there’s a way to work this out, I’m for it unanimously.”

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