The new face of Winslow

"You can't prevent Bainbridge Island from changing, but you can control how it's done, developer Earl Miller believes.And when he renovates one of Winslow's keystone properties - the northeast corner of Winslow Way and Madison Avenue - he intends to make it look nice.I want a building that fits in with the character of the town, Miller said Friday. I want it to look like an old building. My idea is a country French look, with stucco, wrought iron and pitched roofs.Miller told the Review Friday about his plan to replace Lundgren Station and the adjoining building to the east, which houses Schmidt's appliances, with a mixed-use development. Parking will be underground, the street level will be retail, and the upper floors will have some 20 apartments, he said.There's a real need for housing downtown, Miller said. Ideally, I'd like it to be for downtown workers - store clerks and the like. But with the cost of building what it is, that's tough even if you're willing to take a low profit margin.Winslow Way through downtown is due for a reconstruction job in 2002. Given the time required to get plans approved by the city, Miller said he expects to begin work on his project after the road rebuild is finished.And I've got leases that control my time frame, Miller said. So I think I'm two years away from starting.Miller envisions a two-building project, with one building near the corner of Winslow and Madison, one building on the east portion of the property, and a courtyard between. Retail establishments would front both Winslow Way and the courtyard, he said. He plans underground parking and pedestrian access north to city hall.I want to keep this in scale with the area, he said. It should look like it fits in.The project could tie into the Town Square proposal, a parking and mixed-use development proposed for the area on the north side of Winslow Way behind the storefronts, and between Madison and Ericksen avenues.I'm a strong supporter of that project, Miller said. If it happens, all I'd have to do is knock down a wall on my underground parking garage and connect to theirs.The Winslow-Madison corner is not Miller's only opportunity to shape the future look of the island. He owns the old strawberry plant property at the foot of Weaver Road, on Eagle Harbor. The warehouse building that had been built on a pier over the water burned to the water in 1997.The city denied Miller's application to rebuild because the area is no longer zoned for non-residential uses. Miller said he had a grandfathered right to replace an existing structure, but the city disagreed, saying any rights had been lost because the uses changed over the years.In August, a Kitsap Superior Court judge ruled in Miller's favor. The city has appealed that decision.I don't know what I'll do, Miller said. My attorney thinks the city has no chance on appeal. But it will cost me $200,000 to hold that property while the appeal goes forward.If Miller does keep the property and prevails, he wants to rebuild the structure as office space.The pre-fire pad was about 20,000 square feet, he said. With a partial second story, he envisions roughly 30,000 square feet of usable space.I want a low-key, quiet office building,he said. Offices are more compatible with surrounding residential, because everybody goes home at 5 o'clock.In addition to the Bainbridge Island properties, Miller and a partner are developing 75,000 square feet of warehouse space off Highway 305 south of Poulsbo. Although not on the island, Miller expects his customers to be Bainbridge businesses who can't find space on the island.Being a major player on Bainbridge is a far cry from Miller's introduction to the island as a migrant berry-picker.I grew up in Bremerton, he said. When I was a kid, we used to pile onto flatbed trucks and be driven over to Bainbridge to pick strawberries in the summer.Miller, now 64, graduated from Bremerton High School and entered the University of Washington, but that only lasted for a year.My mother had to work to put me through college, he said, and I really didn't enjoy it. So it didn't seem fair.He worked at Boeing for seven years, then started building homes on Mercer Island. In the meantime, he married Linda, his wife of 39 years.Always avid sailors, the Millers moved to Bainbridge in the early 1970s. Miller put up a building on Day Road, and started a shipbuilding business.We grew to 35 people at one point, Miller said. But in the '80s, that business sort of collapsed.But rising Bainbridge land values were his salvation.I found out I could rent the building for more money than I could make at my business, he said. So I could either keep busting my rear end, or I could collect rent. It wasn't a hard choice.He leased the building to the Review, then turned his attention to the Poulsbo Marina, which he had built as a complement to the boat-building business.We renovated about 30,000 square feet of buildings there, he said.But that business hit a rough patch in the early 90s. To keep the business going, the Millers had to sell their Port Madison home and leave the island.We put everything into the business, Miller said. We sold the house, my plane, my wife's Mercedes.But they stayed afloat. And once again, their real estate was the key.We sold the Day Road building to Sound Publishing (now the Review's parent company), and sold the marina, for good prices, he said. It's nice to be comfortable. When people ask me what was the best time of my life, I tell them, 'today.' "

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