POULSBO — There was a time, in the early 1970s, when Bill Austin was down on his luck.
A restaurant he co-owned went belly up. He was broke. He was in a lawsuit against his former partner. He was soothing his wounds with drink.
Then came a moment that changed his life. He walked by the old senior center and saw the older folks inside. He went in for a visit and was appalled by the spartan condition of the old building.
These people had spent 70 or 80 years of their lives raising families and contributing to the community and deserved better, he said. He decided at that moment to remodel the senior center.
He gave himself a seemingly insurmountable challenge: The career sign maker, with no money in his own pockets, said the project wouldn’t cost the seniors a penny.
He found a suitable design — with Nordic influences, of course — in a book. He solicited donations of materials, putting donors’ names on a sign. And the project turned his attention from himself to the needs of others.
It reminded him of the values his mother had passed on to him — of doing things for others not for credit, but because it’s right.
In the ensuing years, Austin did a lot of things that he thought was right for Poulsbo. But on Jan. 26, he couldn’t escape the spotlight, as the Chamber of Commerce presented him with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.
He was presented a trophy and an enlarged photo of the Viking statue — another Austin project — with his face Photoshopped onto the Viking’s.
“Poulsbo looks like it does because of Bill Austin,” said Doug Haughton, general manager of Liberty Bay Auto.
“He has almost single-handedly created, maintained and re-created the look and feel of his adopted home. Armed with paintbrush and hammer, Bill has spent 40 years ensuring Poulsbo remains a one-of-a-kind village of Norwegian heritage, attracting locals and visitors to its shops, restaurants and waterfront.”
Among Austin’s contributions: restoration of the Nelson Farmhouse and the Martinson Log Cabin; remodel of the Poulsbo Marine Science Center, Lindvig Building, and Aroy Dy complex at the head of the bay, as well as several downtown buildings; advocacy for the city’s purchase and creation of Nelson Park; construction of Kvelstad Pavilion, the Oyster Plant Park nautilus, and waterfalls on both ends of Front Street; and creation and donation of several murals and signs.
Haughton, who has supported several projects spearheded by Austin, explained how the 77-year-old gets the job done.
“Bill does most of the work himself, wrangling volunteer craftsmen and others. He gathers donations for his projects, but monies often fall short, so he funds the rest himself, Haughton said.
“Bill isn’t known for following the ponderously slow rules of permits and plans; he’s more likely to build from a vision in his head than anything on paper. But ask him about quality of workmanship — this Sussex-born Englishman can bend your ear about buildings that last centuries, rather than decades. He has a commitment to permanence, yet keeps his adopted town fresh and updated.
“Bill has a remarkable vision of what Poulsbo can and should be, and the determination and stamina to make that vision a reality. And he’s never done … Bill Austin turns old eyesores into works of art which have become icons of our town. Poulsbo looks and feels like Poulsbo — because of Bill Austin.”
Other awards were presented at the chamber’s annual gala, at Kiana Lodge.
— Pearce Dressel Award, sponsored by American Rose Bridal: Linda Foster, second vice president of the Greater Poulsbo Chamber of Commerce, for her work with the Americana Music Festival.
— Pearce Dressel Award, sponsored by the Legacy Group: Camille Meyers, volunteer for more than 30 years at North Kitsap Fishline.
— Outstanding Organization, sponsored by Team Innovative: Poulsbo Farmers Market.
— Outstanding Organization, sponsored by Mike & Sandi Nelson Real Estate: Gateway Fellowship, for its Operation Day of Hope, which provided services to 1,085 people in need.
— Outstanding Business, sponsored by AmericanWest Bank: Harrison Medical Center.
— Person of the Year, sponsored by Viking Fest Corp.: Mayor Becky Erickson, in recognition of her leadership during her term.