Watson firm leaves island
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:09 PM
"Open-space requirements in Bainbridge's light-manufacturing zoning have cost the island a 40-year-old manufacturing business that employs 100 people.It makes people feel good, but does open space in a manufacturing zone actually do anybody any good? said Clif McKenzie, president of Watson Furniture Systems, who announced this week that the company would move off-island within a year.Watson's lease is up in July 2001, and the furniture manufacturer's business is booming - a 40 percent growth rate last year, and projections of 20-25 percent this year. They needed to dramatically increase the size of their operation from its present 47,000 square feet, but were unable to find a suitable site on Bainbridge.In the best of all possible worlds, we needed 10 net usable acres, said McKenzie, whose company manufactures furniture for office and government use. We couldn't find it on the island.The Brown property on Sportsman Club Road south of Bainbridge Alliance Church would have been ideal, but the open-space requirement limiting lot coverage to 35 percent made the usable area too small, McKenzie said.Another parcel recently rezoned to light manufacturing - the Coultas property of New Brooklyn Road behind the Madison Avenue fire station - had similar problems.And the 35-acre industrial park planned for the north side of Day Road was ruled out because of topographical challenges, fragmented ownership and the fact that neighborhood opposition threatens to delay permitting past Watson's lease-expiration date.City councilman Norm Wooldridge defended the open-space provisions as a compromise between islanders who oppose all light manufacturing and those who want it.The buffer areas aren't suitable for commercial use, but that's what the people of Bainbridge Island want, he said, adding that buffers prevent the rollover of adjacent property.If there are no buffers, a residential area across the street sees the manufacturing and argues that they should converted to manufacturing zoning also. The visual buffer helps mitigate that, Wooldridge said.McKenzie thinks that logic can backfire by intensifying the pressure for more industrial space.Why not fully utilize the land zoned for manufacturing and decrease the pressure on other land? he said.Unable to find expansion space on the island, Watson purchased a 22-acre parcel in Lofall, north of Poulsbo. McKenzie said the company will move by July.Sheri Watson, who manages the Day Road West business park where the company was located, said that while she's sorry to say goodbye to the business that her family started, she does not anticipate any long-term job loss to the island.I'm getting calls every day for leasing, she said, and I'm just now starting to market the space. Most of the interest is from tech-based companies who want some space, but not from one big company that wants the whole 47,000 square feet.I expect we'll have more diversity in jobs and more companies than we do now.McKenzie says that while Bainbridge may not lose jobs, it loses intangibles.We are proud to employ people who work with their hands, he said. You lose the soul of the community if you only have people who work in offices.But McKenzie acknowledged that recruiting blue-collar workers to Bainbridge was becoming difficult. Although 40 percent of current company employees live on the island, he has very few applications from islanders to fill new openings.We pay good working-man's wages, he said, but there aren't a lot of working-man's houses left on the island. Although the city didn't put a foot in our rear end, McKenzie questions the island's commitment to economic diversity, even though that objective is spelled out in the Comprehensive Plan.I think people love to be in an environment where they say they want diversity, he said. But doing it needs hard decisions, and I don't know if Bainbridge will accept the warts that go with blue-collar employment. "