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City urged to join economic effortsSzigethy: Kitsap workers need opportunities here.
"While growth may have its downside, economic development is critical to maintaining Bainbridge Island's community vitality.So says Zoltan Szigethy, executive director of the Kitsap Regional Economic Development Council.When I was working in Seattle, I spent very little time here as a community participant, said Szigethy, an island resident since 1972. It's not just the work, it's being part of the community.Szigethy has asked the city to join the EDC at a cost of $20,000 per year. After hearing his presentation at its last meeting, the council is likely to approve the request this week.Council member Merrill Robison agrees that island economic development is a quality-of-life issue.The question is whether we are going to be a bedroom community only or a self-contained community, he said. I tend to opt for the latter. It's so much easier to do little things like go to your kid's school play and be part of their lives when you work here.To bring businesses into the area and keep those that are here, Szigethy and the EDC work in five major areas:* Lobbying for stable and predictable land-use regulations;* Working to create an inventory of land suitable for business use;* Pushing to create the physical and social infrastructure that businesses need;* Marketing the county to entrepreneurs, and;* Creating an understanding and hospitable climate among the residents.The latter is something of a challenge on Bainbridge, where any kind of development - economic or otherwise - receives a mixed reception at best.In Bainbridge, it's 'not in my backyard.' In Bremerton and Port Orchard, it's 'please, in my back yard,' Szigethy says.He points out, though, that under the state Growth Management Act, even anti-development forces on Bainbridge should support the EDC's efforts to promote economic development on the island.The GMA requires county-by-county planning for population growth, he said, which includes planning enough jobs to support the anticipated growth. To the extent that growth and jobs can be created elsewhere in Kitsap County, it takes pressure off the island, he said.Szigethy believes that the key to island economic development is an advanced telecommunications infrastructure.We have very limited space here for producing goods, he said. But with broadband telecommunications, intellectual products can be built, serviced and maintained here, and sold over the Internet.While he says new land for light manufacturing might be needed on Bainbridge, he thinks that office parks might have more promise.That kind of development doesn't have the intensity of impact. There are no trucks, and fewer problems with water and sewer, he said.The EDC's emphasis is on what he calls primary jobs, that is, jobs making products that are sold elsewhere, which brings new money into the area. That money multiplies as it circulates through the service businesses that cater to people already in the community.At the moment, he said, the dominant source of primary employment in Kitsap County is defense-oriented jobs. The problem with those, he said, is their unpredictability.You don't control your destiny with defense jobs, he said, and the diversity in primary jobs is not that great.No opportunitiesSzigethy got involved in economic development when the lack of diversity literally came home to him.One of his sons is a talented chemist, he said. Another is interested in international business, and would like to be a manufacturer's representative.If you look in the Kitsap County yellow pages, there is one entry of any sort for chemical companies, compared to 34 in Seattle, he said. There are three entries for manufacturer's representatives, compared to over 300 in Seattle.If my sons wanted to live and work here, there is very little chance they would be able to do so. What he described as an emotional reaction to that situation got him involved with the EDC. An island resident since 1972, Szigethy (pronounced Suh-GET-ty), was involved in banking and property management in Seattle. When he retired in 1985, he became heavily involved in island affairs, and was instrumental in creating the Bainbridge Island Land Trust.In the early 1990s, he took what was first a temporary then a permanent position in his native Hungary trying to professionalize municipal services. He retired again in 1997, and took the EDC job last fall.Since then, he said, the EDC worked with Watson Furniture Systems to keep it in Kitsap County when the firm announced it would leave Bainbridge because it couldn't find adequate land for expansion.That kept those jobs in the area, and some of them are held by Bainbridge residents, he said.More recently, the EDC successfully courted Nextel, which is opening a 500-job call center just outside of Bremerton.Szigethy wants to dispel the impression that the EDC is a government agency. It is, in fact, a private, non-profit corporation, although it has asked for financial support from the county and from the four incorporated cities.And he takes good-natured exception to his being labeled the county's economic czar in this newspaper and elsewhere.A czar by definition has power, he said. We may have influence, but not because of any regulatory authority. Bainbridge Island City Council member Lois Curtis agrees that Bainbridge should support the EDC, even though the issue is not a high-profile one for residents.We are particularly fortunate that he is a long-term resident, and understands that economic development is not high on the list of things people here respond to, Curtis said. But I think it's valuable. I don't think we want to be only a bedroom and farming community. "