Port commissioner says SEED needs stronger leadership

Over lunch Wednesday with the Kitsap County commissioners, Port of Bremerton Commissioner Bill Mahan expressed concern that the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) project will not succeed without leadership.

“If people just sit back and say it’s a good idea, it will never happen,” Mahan said to the group gathered at Los Cabos Grill. “It’s not going to happen without leadership. It’s the difference between sitting back and watching, and actually getting out and pushing to make it happen.”

As an example of the the lack of progress that is frustrating him, Mahan pointed to the fact that the port board voted nearly six months ago to “pause” the SEED project and have a third party review the project’s business and financial plans.

“At that time, the pause was supposed to be 60 days,” he said. “Now, here we are 150 days out and we haven’t even retained a company. There’s no leadership there.”

Another bone of contention at the table — described by North Kitsap Commissioner Steve Bauer as a “sensitive subject” — was the $1 million previously promised to the project by the county which is now contingent in part on the due diligence being completed successfully.

“What changed your mind?” Mahan asked South Kitsap Commissioner Jan Angel, who responded with: “I just don’t believe you can build it and hope they will come.”

Angel said she was concerned about SEED being unable to attract “anchor tenants,” while port Commissioner Larry Stokes described the idea of the port constructing an incubator building without having any paying tenants signed on as a “great, big gamble” with the public’s money.

“It’s a gamble, but it’s not a great, big one,” Mahan said, adding that “Larry and I disagree about this. It takes a public investment to get (such a project) off the ground.”

When it comes to incubator buildings, Mahan said, “There are two facts you cannot get away from — incubators are designed for start-ups, so you are not going to get anyone to sign anything until the building is under construction, and you cannot find private investment (in the beginning). That will come later.”

Stokes said he was not opposed to the project in theory, but insisted, “I think there’s a way to do it and do it right,” asking again why the port had to build a new building when it already had a 24,000-square-foot facility ready to go.

“That building is not designed for an incubator,” Mahan said, explaining that the existing facility could be used for a manufacturer, not a start-up. “It does not have enough lab space, (nor does it have) a central space for the shared office staff.”

Asked why the project needed to have an incubator building, Mahan said because that is how you grow and retain businesses in your region.

“Instead of trying to draw an existing business away from its current location, you are better off trying to (incubate) one here,” he said, pointing repeatedly to Tacoma’s William Factory Small Business Incubator as an example the port was looking to emulate.

When asked by Angel if the port would also be paying for the operations and maintenance of the incubator building, port Chief Executive Officer Ken Attebery said at least out the outset it would, and the port had budgeted such expenditures in its 2008 budget.

“However,” he said, “we are hoping to transition to having a non-profit corporation take over the building, similar to what William Factory has done.”

“Can I ask why the port is playing Santa Claus?” Stokes said. “Why did I have to sell furniture out of my garage to start my business?”

In response, Attebery said the quick answer was that the port was tasked with making “choices about how to use the public’s money” within its role of encouraging and sustaining economic development.

“That is why I am trying to keep an open mind,” Angel said.

To show firsthand how a successful incubator operates, Mahan said he was securing a bus and planning to offer a tour in late June to any interested parties who wanted to tour William Factory and learn more about its operations.

In the meantime, Attebery said the remaining interviews with candidates vying to complete the third-party reviews of the SEED project’s business model were scheduled for last Thursday and Friday.

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