Port of Bremerton delays vote on SEED money

Decision on whether to accept $2.58 million in federal grant put off until after release of consultant’s report.

The Port of Bremerton commissioners on Tuesday voted to postpone a decision on whether to accept a $2.58 million federal grant until after the release of a consultant’s report on the program the grant would support.

The grant, from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA), would help construct a 17,000-square-foot building within the port’s proposed Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) project, a business incubator for green technology startup companies.

But the federal money must be matched dollar for dollar by the port.

The port would most likely have fund the match by issuing general obligation bonds, which would be repaid using local property taxes, making the vote a controversial proposition.

In the meantime, the commissioners were planning to make public a report compiled by Berk and Associates, a Seattle-based independent consulting firm, regarding whether or not the SEED project makes economic sense at all.

Until the review — which was ordered by the commissioners — is completed, the SEED project remains officially on hold.

At the suggestion of Port Commissioner Larry Stokes, fellow Commissioner Bill Mahan — an outspoken supporter of SEED — agreed to reschedule the vote for mid-October, giving the public an opportunity to look over the report and weigh in on whether the port should commit itself to matching the grant.

Port Commissioner Cheryl Kincer was not present.

“I just think this matter needs more discussion,” Stokes said. “I think the Berk Report needs to be released so people can see what it says. I’m not prepared to vote on this until next week.”

Stokes’ reservations were echoed by Tim Matthes, the Republican candidate for county commissioner from South Kitsap, who attended the meeting as a private citizen.

“I don’t think it’’s fair to the taxpayers to put them into a position where you’re voting on something before they know the totality of the information about it,” Matthes said. “Let’s give the public a chance to see the report and digest it.”

Not that the report or the public’s reaction to it will be the deciding factor.

“The Berk Report will just tell us what’s good and bad about the project,” Mahan said. “It won’t make a specific recommendation. It’s up to the commissioners to decide that.”

Judging by the testimony of those Kitsap residents present, the commissioners would have a difficult time selling the idea to the voters if they decide to accept the grant.

“How much money has the port already put into SEED?” Robert Oliver asked. “How much more before it’s completed? And how much after that before the taxpayers see a return on their investment?”

Katherine Simmons was more direct.

“I don’t think we should accept this grant,” she said. “This is just one more example of the government bailing out a private business. I think if you put it to a vote right now, most people would say let the private sector step up.”

The lone dissenting voice on Tuesday was Port Orchard resident Mary Colborn, who argued the long-term benefits of supporting environmentally friendly technology outweighed the short-term costs.

“With all due respect,” she said, “the people who testify against this project are all old men who won’t live long enough for it to make any difference to them. But it will make a difference to our children and grandchildren what we decide.”

John Hanson, a Bremerton resident and former U.S. Department of Energy employee, disagreed.

“This project is supposed to be about economic development,” he said. “Our primary concern should be on how many jobs it produces, not on how it makes us feel.”

Hanson said the whole idea of a green technology incubator was based more on emotion than a sound business model.

“Over in Walla Walla, they built a business incubator for wineries,” he said. “That’s an idea that makes sense because they chose an industry that actually has a history of earning a profit. SEED isn’t viable because we picked a technology that’s unproven. In the current economic climate, it’s very difficult for me to understand the port putting up more empty buildings.”

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