Opinion

Devoted to the past, in a place devoted to the future | Editor's Notebook

Richard Walker ... editor of the North Kitsap Herald - File photo
Richard Walker ... editor of the North Kitsap Herald
— image credit: File photo

A.J. Watling-Fureby, dressed in vintage clothing, greeted visitors at the front counter. Life-size cutouts of former mayors looked like they might spring to life at any moment and convene a City Council meeting or ask for a report on some urgent matter.

Visitors got their pictures taken with Miss Poulsbo Natasha Tucker and looked for themselves in old yearbooks. They relaxed in old theater seats — many older residents watched films in the ’50s in those same seats — and watched a short presentation on Poulsbo’s historical highlights.

Grandparents told their grandchildren how they used farm equipment like those on display, and passed on stories from their own parents about riding the steamer Hyak between Poulsbo and Seattle.

The Poulsbo Historical Museum opened Friday to a packed house. Historical Society President Donna Jean Bruce, a former mayor, opened with laudatory remarks in the council chambers before a crowd that spilled into the foyer.

The opening was significant on so many levels. Artifacts that tell the story of the evolution of this city are now on display so visitors can have a better understanding of how Poulsbo became Poulsbo. But as the museum provides a window into the city’s past, its venue — City Hall — provides a window into its future. A future that Mayor Becky Erickson hopes is leaner and more efficient.

“History never looks like history when you are living through it,” said John W. Gardner, who resigned as President Johnson’s secretary of Health, Education and Welfare because he couldn’t support the Vietnam War.

I thought of that quote as Erickson led my Molly and me on a tour of City Hall after we perused some volumes in the museum’s library. A lot of history will be made here in this imposing structure. As a council member, Erickson opposed the construction of such a large City Hall. But now, as the city’s chief executive, she’s responsible for making sure the building pays for itself, and that it does so in an efficient, public-friendly way.

The mayor has had her work cut out for her. City Hall, at 30,000 square feet, is cavernous. It’s been said City Hall was built for the future. But in Erickson’s view, the future is now.

City Hall, which opened in November,  cost about $15 million. The average annual debt is expected to be $800,000 until 2026, when the first bond issue is retired. The payment then will become about $410,000 through 2034. I’m 48 now. I’ll be 72 when City Hall is paid off.

After taking office as mayor in January 2010, months before City Hall was completed, Erickson began recruiting tenants whose presence would be compatible with the functions of a government center. You won’t find a Starbucks in the lobby; the City Council mandated that City Hall be a center for government and non-profit services, no private sector.

Erickson has had to be persistent. Early on, she thought the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council and the Kitsap Economic Development Alliance would be good tenants for offices on the third floor, but those organizations were undergoing budget cuts.

She had hoped to get Kitsap County, based in Port Orchard, to establish a North County presence by opening some offices in City Hall. Again, budget cuts precluded that. Same for District Court. Then, the idea of locating the Bainbridge Island Municipal Court here was pitched, but the cities couldn’t reach agreement and the idea died.

Locating the historical museum here was smart, because museums often are the best repositories of important documents. The museum is buying its space in City Hall for $200,000 over five years, helping to offset debt from City Hall’s construction.

Erickson walked us through unfinished office space and rooms with empty cubicles. We visited the Municipal Court; there’s room on this floor for the police department, and it makes sense to have law and justice in the same location. Besides parking and traffic infractions, the court handles criminal misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors, and protection orders for victims of domestic violence. There’s secured parking here, which means easy transport of suspects from booking to the county jail in Port Orchard.

All city department administrators, except for the police chief, have moved to City Hall. If the police department moves to City Hall — it’s currently under study — Erickson wants to move court administration to office space (with sweeping view) on the third floor. At that point, City Hall’s offices will be occupied.

As a council member, Erickson had proposed that the police department be moved to the new City Hall, but her colleagues voted it down. She believes times and attitudes have changed.

“It’s one thing to look at a set of plans, and it’s another to be here and actually seeing it now,” she said of City Hall and the police department’s potential move. “We need to be more efficient with how our business space is being used.”

Erickson wants to sell the old city hall site on Jensen Way, with proceeds used to offset the debt from City Hall’s construction. Ditto for the undeveloped lot that had been proposed as a museum site on Jensen Way, appraised at $168,000 (the old city hall property is listed for $1.25 million). The police station on Hostmark Street will be sold or leased if the department moves to City Hall.

“City government has to get more efficient,” Erickson said. “We shouldn’t be in the land speculation business. Cities that do that end up making some bad decisions sometimes. We should spend only what we take in.”

Despite City Hall’s imposing size, it could become a symbol of a leaner, more efficient local government.

— Richard Walker is editor of the North Kitsap Herald. Contact him at 779-4464 or e-mail rwalker@northkitsapherald.com.

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