Seven years ago in May, having never stepped foot in Port Orchard, I rolled into town as the new editor of the Independent. Since then, it’s been quite a ride.
Thanks to the helpful assistance of reporter Chris Chancellor during those first weeks, I was able to quickly navigate our beautiful part of South Kitsap — from Bethel to Sedgwick roads, along Bay Street through the business district to Gorst, the lingering stretch of Mile Hill Drive to lovely Manchester, and the forested rural stretches of South Kitsap.
On my first day, then-mayor Tim Matthes dropped by our office on Bethel to introduce himself, followed by other civic stalwarts that week, including Sharron King, who continues to this day to almost single-handedly roadmap the multi-tentacled entity known as Fathoms O’ Fun Festivals to bring summertime fun to the area.
During these seven years on the weekly media hamster wheel keeping watch over the news of South Kitsap and Port Orchard, I’ve been impressed by the selfless people who keep this beautiful corner of Puget Sound a special place.
They include those in city and county government who work every day without fanfare and receive little thanks for their efforts. Port Orchard is fortunate to have Mayor Rob Putaansuu leading the efforts to guide the city — kicking and screaming — into its rightful place as the growing regional headquarters of Kitsap County government and as a vibrant location of choice for incoming young families and businesses.
The mayor and staff have been assisted by City Council members who have a mix of experience and enthusiasm and have eschewed grandstanding and petty conflict seen in other cities for cooperation and cohesiveness in forging civic policies better aligned with these changing times.
Putaansuu made a welcome change in the city’s police department a few years ago by bringing in a progressive new chief, Matt Brown, from the leadership ranks of neighboring Poulsbo. Brown recognized the need to upgrade and reinvigorate his police department, which included reaching out to the community for their input and concerns in light of the national George Floyd police brutality issue.
Our place has had steady, budget-conscious leadership with Fire Chief Steve Wright at South Kitsap Fire and Rescue. That continues today with Jeff Faucett now at the helm. He recognizes the need to grow the organization in order to meet South Kitsap’s public safety requirements as the district transforms from its rural origins to a more diverse mixture of population centers.
South Kitsap School District has had a rough go of it over the past decade, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic brought upheaval and uncertainty to the district the past few years. That’s on top of the civic negligence of its public educational system promulgated by a vocal minority of people who’d rather save a few tax dollars instead of tending to the district’s aging infrastructure. SKSD hasn’t seen a new building upgrade since the late 1980s — the last time a bond measure was passed by voters. It not that superintendents haven’t asked the community — first by Karst Brandsma and later by current superintendent Tim Winter.
That’s a shame. Other communities in Kitsap County seem to understand how this interconnected, codependent matrix works: a state-of-the-art school district is attractive to young families searching for a place to lay down roots. In turn, young families attract vibrant businesses to a community that has zoning policies that encourage steady growth. And large businesses bring new jobs and contribute additional sources of tax revenue to the community — which reduce the tax burden on residential property owners.
It’s no secret that serving on a school board is an exercise in self-inflicted punishment. There’s no pay involved in the task, but it does require plenty of late-night hours and the constant need to deflect potshots from the proverbial peanut gallery. That’s in the best of times. Unfortunately, as is the case with SKSD, school boards are often at war with each other over petty concerns while the district’s emergent needs are overlooked and often ignored.
Transportation needs in South Kitsap will continue to garner the undue attention of governmental policymakers as this decade progresses. This region is late to the game in partnering with the state and county to keep pace with growth. A fix to the Gorst traffic mess is years away; civic leaders only recently banded together to campaign for a half-billion-dollar solution that will inevitably depend on the financial kindness of the state Legislature.
The city of Port Orchard has in place a plan to address the increasing congestion on the vital north-south Bethel Avenue arterial. It will feature more roundabouts and require lots of money — more than $50 million to complete the project through a series of bite-sized steps. That’s lots of financial heavy lifting for a small city government that will need plenty of outside project grants and many years to complete it.
The Puget Sound region’s growth this decade has been astounding. While the pandemic has added a dose of near-term uncertainty, there’s no doubt that growth here is inexorable and unstoppable. Puget Sounders with high-paying jobs in Seattle are discovering Kitsap County as a relatively untapped location with more reasonably priced homes (hard as that is to believe these days if you can nab one). A grim reminder: the average home sales price in Seattle is around $1 million.
When I joined the Independent, I was told there was an ongoing tug-of-war between the advocates for growth and those wishing to keep Port Orchard as the rural haven it was in the 20th century. How things have changed in the resulting seven years of my tenure. One is the realization that communities like ours don’t really have much of a choice in the matter these days except to better prepare ourselves for the oncoming tsunami.
The winds of change are affecting everyone and everything these days. That includes community newspapers and how important news is delivered to those interested in the developments taking place at a hyperlocal level. In the time I’ve been here, social media has taken an oversized role in spreading information, often inaccurate and polarizing, to the community. But be assured that Kitsap News Group’s online Kitsap Daily News website and the weekly Independent are still here and dedicated to keeping you informed about what’s going on in South Kitsap with relevant and accurate news stories.
Getting off the hamster wheel
I’m leaving Kitsap News Group at the end of this month for new adventures away from the grind of the perpetual news cycle. In my place, reporter Eli Meyer will keep you informed on news relevant to Port Orchard, and South and Central Kitsap, managed by Kitsap News Group executive editor Steve Powell on Bainbridge Island.
My tenure here as editor in Port Orchard has been the most meaningful time of my professional career. To our readers who have joined me for the ride since 2015 — thank you and continue to stay informed.