'Big box' businesses benefit Poulsbo's economy

POULSBO — The looming three-word catch phrase is one many small towns have come to dread: big box store.

Corporate chains are often seen as threats to local businesses and the small-scale feel of a town. Poulsbo has been no exception to that matter, facing in the decade past the budding College Marketplace development where Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Office Max, among others, currently sit. But Poulsbo Council Member Ed Stern said now, more than a decade after discussion regarding Olhava first began, a new perspective can be taken on the big box effect — one that encompasses a more positive outlook on the aftermath of chain store presence.

‘The proof is in the pudding’

Stern said it’s in no small measure due to the added sales tax revenue from the Olhava development that the city can build a new city hall — one currently aiming to cost $17 million. Opened officially in 2006, the sales tax percentage base from Olhava shot from 1 percent the year before to 21 percent. In 2007, it accounted for 23 percent of sales tax revenues, according to City Finance Director Deb Booher.

Stern said he appreciates the poetry of the situation: big box tax revenue being redirected to downtown revitalization, which in turn should help local shops. Despite concern a decade ago that the character of Poulsbo would be indelibly altered for the worse, “Poulsbo hasn’t been destroyed,” he said. “The character hasn’t been lost. ... Ten years forward, I think the careful visioning and execution bears out the fruit of the labor.”

It’s a big-picture view and a lesson he says cities can take in hand — with the proper approach and good follow through, a leverage can be struck not pitting corporate chain against locally owned, but fashioning the two into a beneficial situation.

“It was important to diversify the tax base of Poulsbo for the long haul, not only for the health of the city but for the health of the residential taxpayer,” Stern said. “Now we have a very healthy tax base. We’re able to weather well the (economic) contraction without worrying about basic service cuts,” or putting the burden on a single tax base.

It was an opportunity Stern said in part caused him to change his vote from an original bid for a 10th Avenue city hall to a call for a downtown project, which in turn will enable a “multiple solutions approach to the downtown.” That approach has been the topic of discussion for the city council lately, breeching parking structures and other downtown investment and redevelopment potential.

Stern said the synergy created is one that will benefit and protect the city’s core, as well as its whole, which continues to attract with a high quality of life.

“It all works and I’m very proud. This is the reason why Poulsbo’s doing as well as it is,” he said. “In other words, the proof is in the pudding.”

You can always go downtown

Historic Downtown Poulsbo Association president Tammy Mattson said it’s a “mixed bag” response merchants have to larger chain stores, some allowing that they help spur the economic base, others terming them detriments — especially those most harshly affected. For smaller stores that can’t offer discounts like their large chain counterparts, it comes down to service offered that makes the difference for customers.

Even nationwide movements have championed the “shop local” cause, which plugs returning support and feedback into a community.

“The thought was originally that big box stores don’t do that,” Mattson said.

That said, “before Wal-Mart, you couldn’t get a pair of underwear without going to Silverdale,” she added.

Though the presence of Olhava rests easier on local gas tanks, Mattson said Poulsbo is still a place she’d never want to see become cropped with corporate companies, as has happened in Federal Way. And when it comes to the theme and brand of downtown — which she termed a critical “center spine” for business owners — the support of local government is a must, especially in providing safe streets for pedestrians and a friendly police force appearance at community events.

That Little Norway theme and brand is often compared to the likes of Bavarian-themed Leavenworth, a town with only a McDonald’s and a Subway rounding out corporate chain presence. But Leavenworth City Administrator Richard Brinkman said in the town of 2,160, big box interest just isn’t there.

“That’s one reason why we don’t have interest from a Target or a Wal-Mart,” he said of the city’s size. The other: restrictive architectural and sign standards in keeping with the town’s look. Most businesses just don’t want to deal with it, he said.

While in Poulsbo big boxes have shown interest — and made an impact — the downtown sales tax revenue has remained on a fairly even keel. Booher said the area drew six percent of sales tax revenue in 2005, and five percent in both 2006 and 2007.

Kitsap Economic Development Alliance executive director Kathy Cocus said she was just glad to hear of Poulsbo turning it’s tools and revenue influx to good use.

“It’s good to hear that Poulsbo’s being proactive and trying to do what’s best for the community,” she said. “I think Poulsbo has a good self-image and they want to keep that.”

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