Learning center brings green

One of Bainbridge Island’s cherished beliefs is that business and the environment can coexist peacefully.

The Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center is taking that one step further. Its mission is the environment, but it is a business that will make a significant contribution to the local economy.

“This is the largest capital construction project at one time in island history,” said PSELC founder Paul Brainerd of the $32.5 million multi-building campus taking shape off of Blakely Avenue.

Indeed, the project’s dollar value equals the total for the next two largest projects – the $20 million high school expansion and the $12.2 million Sakai school.

The administrative staff of 26 moved into the island headquarters building two weeks ago. When the dozen yet-to-be hired employees come on board, the center’s payroll will be almost $2.5 million.

“We learned that this would be a very popular place for people on the island to work,” Brainerd said. “When we were giving weekend tours, the most common question were asked was ‘how can I learn about jobs here?’”

The center posted job announcements on the web, advertised extensively, and received resumes from across the country. To Brainerd’s happy surprise, he didn’t need to look far.

“The island is an incredible talent resource,” he said. “We found highly qualified people right here for many jobs.”

The vast majority of the jobs were filled by Bainbridge residents – most of whom lived here when they applied, and a few of whom moved here after they were hired.

Two more high-level people remain to be hired – the education director and the executive director, who will take charge of the daily operations.

“I’m working hard to replace myself,” said Brainerd, who is acting as executive director.

That job has been the subject of a nationwide search. More than 400 initial applicants have been winnowed to fewer than 40 people for initial interviews. That field will be further reduced to three or four, who will be brought to the PSELC campus for half-day interviews.

The job description for education director will soon be posted on the center’s web site, and Brainerd hopes the job can be filled within the next two months.

Buying local

The economic impact of the center will extend beyond employees.

The budget anticipates spending well over $500,000 per year on non-salary items, and much of that will be spent on-island through on-going relationships or contracts with such businesses as Town & Country, Custom Printing, Mastercraft Lighting, Paper Products and Winslow Hardware.

“We will also use local farms for organic produce when we can,” Brainerd said. “We may not be able to buy everything on the island, but we will do so when we can.”

In addition to the regular employees, the center plans to offer short courses on a variety of subjects, using local people as instructors.

The educational programs will begin test runs as early as April. Beginning then, school children will participate in four-day residence programs. The summer will be devoted to test runs of weekend and special programs, which will be oriented more toward island residents.

A community-oriented grand opening is planned for late September, and programs will continue to be refined after that point.

“It will take two or three years for the center to reach its pace in terms of the vision we have,” Brainerd said. “That will involve turning the visions into real programs.”

Brainerd anticipates that program users will pay about two-thirds of the center’s annual $3 million operating budget, with fund-raising filling in the balance. And he thinks much of the money will come from Bainbridge.

“We have roughly 500 donors so far, almost all of whom are from this area,” he said. “That group is divided about evenly between Kitsap and King Counties.”

Brainerd said he does not expect PSELC to compete with other island non-profits so much as cooperate with them. He noted, for example, that the center will have one of the largest dining facilities on the island, making it a suitable location for fund-raising events.

“We have formed partnerships with a number of them,” Brainerd said, “and we are looking for different ways to integrate into the community.”

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