Opinion

Is SEED plan on its last legs? Let’s hope so

Multimillion-dollar public projects, like battleships, can’t be expected to stop on a dime. Consequently, we’re satisfied — encouraged even — by the Port of Bremerton Board of Commissioners’ decision this past week to table, at least for now, the controversial Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) project.

Our preference would be to pull the plug on the whole boondoggle immediately, but a stay of execution at least represents a promising start.

At the request of Port Commissioner Cheryl Kincer, the board by a 2-1 vote agreed to put the project on “pause” until its business plan and funding scheme can be subjected to third-party review.

“I am absolutely bombarded with inquiries from people in calls, e-mails and in public regarding SEED,” Kincer said. “It is so obvious that not everyone has all the answers to their questions.”

That being the case, we stand by our oft-stated view that the port shouldn’t have wasted the taxpayers’ money on the project in the first place. But we give Kincer credit for recognizing — albeit belatedly — the wisdom of listening to the wishes of the same disenchanted constituents who last November replaced longtime fellow-Commissioner Mary Ann Huntington with current Commissioner Larry Stokes.

SEED, for the uninitiated, involves converting a section of the port’s South Kitsap Industrial Area into a business incubator for companies involved in the development of eco-friendly energy technologies.

But while we’re all for encouraging business growth, we think government can better accomplish that goal by reducing taxes and regulatory burdens than by picking winners and losers in the market and offering taxpayer-funded subsidies to unproven companies.

Even more pointedly, if politicians insist on dabbling in the investment banker business, we believe the least the taxpayers deserve is that their hard-earned dollars be spent on pro-jects with a track record of success elsewhere.

SEED, by definition, is none of the above in that it aims to recruit businesses that apparently cannot raise investment capital from private sources.

And if professional investors — who get paid big bucks to determine which business ideas have profit potential — don’t believe in the companies that would inhabit SEED, it’s nothing short of irresponsible for the port commissioners to funnel their constituents’ money into anything so speculative.

Stokes, who consistently provides the voice of financial reason for the port commissioners, noted, “I am being told, ‘If we build it, they will come.’ But I am not ready to gamble with the taxpayers’ money.”

What a refreshing sentiment.

The questions on the table now are what exactly constitutes a “pause” and who will provide the “third-party” oversight the board requires.

At a minimum, we’d suggest the pause be defined as meaning not another dime be spent until such time as the project gets a clean bill of health from whomever is chosen to evaluate its practicality.

As for who that should be, it’s been suggested that a panel of academics from Washington State University or the University of Washington-Tacoma perform the review, but with all due respect, that seems like a poor solution.

This is a business question and it demands a business answer. The group chosen for the task should be composed of individuals accustomed to taking money from investors and using it to earn a profit, not lecturing freshmen.

It also goes without saying that the review board shouldn’t be hand-picked by Tim Botkin or other SEED enthusiasts.

If tax money is going to be treated like an investment, the taxpayers deserve to be treated like real investors.

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