PORT ORCHARD — While any achievement or shortfall taking place in 2020 most certainly had the stamp of COVID-19 all over it, Mayor Rob Putaansuu told City Council members last week that there were notable success stories that managed to emerge from the fallout of the pandemic.
In his “state of the city” report to the Port Orchard City Council, the mayor said several major city projects and planning efforts were either completed or made significant headway at the end of a challenging, often difficult year.
In an interview last week with the Independent, Putaansuu said that despite the coronavirus, the city made significant accomplishments in several areas, including making progress toward creating a new downtown community events center on Port Orchard’s Sinclair Inlet waterfront.
“COVID slowed us down this past year, but the housing market is still strong here,” Putaansuu said. “We saw strong sales tax growth here again — in Port Orchard in particular — and it’s partly because of housing.
“We have some festivals and a marina, and we have a bit of tourism, but we’re not a tourism destination and we don’t have a regional mall. [Consequently,] we didn’t have the rug jerked out from underneath us like many communities [experienced].”
That was due partly to the community’s strong allegiance to local businesses, he said.
“We’ve always preached shopping locally and how it can help your community. It’s happening here. People are shopping local. We’re also seeing strong sales tax in 2020 in Port Orchard. Part of it is the online retail phenomenon …”
Putaansuu described the current economy as being in a “K cycle,” in which there are “distinct winners and losers for how our economy is performing right now.”
He said some businesses are having better years than they’ve ever had. But there are the “losers”; service industries such as restaurants and bowling centers are having a difficult time outlasting the pandemic.
The mayor said 2020 was a momentous year for the South Kitsap Community Center project slated for downtown Port Orchard. The project was boosted by a $12 million commitment from the Kitsap Public Facilities District — the backbone of its estimated $20 million eventual price tag.
The City of Port Orchard has since taken the leading role in the project’s development. Following the selection of Bremerton architectural firm Rice Fergus Miller to create the center’s design, Putaansuu recounted the effort last fall to identify potential sites in the downtown Port Orchard area through a community outreach campaign.
Originators first envisioned the center placed at the current 7-Eleven site on Bay Street. But after city officials discovered the property owners weren’t willing to sell it, Rice Fergus Miller then sought input from community members on where they wanted the center to sit.
Three sites were chosen as finalists from among eight downtown locations: the existing Kitsap Bank site, the current location of the Port Orchard Library, and property on Frederick where a housing project is envisioned.
Putaansuu said input from about 600 people who completed a survey identified criteria best needed for the community center. That input was decisive in pinpointing the Kitsap Bank location on the waterfront as being the best fit for the project.
“It was very apparent that the Kitsap Bank site checked all the boxes,” he said. “It offers the ability to spill out to a public plaza on [state Department of Natural Resources] property out in front of it. I thought in the back of my mind when we started the process that it was the most promising site. It was reinforced by feedback from the community.”
The mayor said plenty of design work remains to be done. “We’ve got a lot of ideas and I don’t think they’ll all fit in our 20,000-square-foot building. We’ll have a process to work through that, but I’m excited.”
He said the project also would ensure that Kitsap Bank retains Port Orchard as its headquarters location. It’s also a top priority to keep the bank’s corporate campus downtown.
The community center is part of a downtown master plan project that would include commercial and retail space and a couple of hundred housing units, along with a parking garage. This multi-phased project is envisioned to be completed in phases over the next decade, the mayor said.
The mayor said two other major goals and priorities this year are transportation-related projects: a design for a roundabout that will improve safety at the intersection of Bethel Avenue and Lincoln Street, and supporting a collection of regional government agencies to locate funding for a solution to Gorst-area traffic gridlock.
The state Department of Transportation earlier this month announced it will allocate $1.5 million toward a $2.8 million roundabout at Bethel and Lincoln that Putaansuu said he hopes will alleviate the high number of serious accidents that occur on this growing stretch of roadway. The project is expected to be completed by November 2022.
“Now more than ever, there’s an opportunity for some federal money,” he said of the Gorst issue. “That’s not solely a Port Orchard issue — it’s a regional issue.”
A third transportation issue in search of a solution is traffic congestion at the intersection of Bethel and Sedgwick avenues. But, as Putaansuu acknowledged, Sedgwick is not a city roadway — it’s under the domain of the state.
“I know this is a significant bottleneck,” he said. “It’s not something that we can afford to fix — it’s going to be challenging enough to fix Bethel. But I’m excited that we have at least one project in the next biennium and we’ll be doing more out there.”