Chamber of Commerce submits economic white paper to the city

The island was not spared during the last economic downturn, but it can get back on track with a little help from the right people.

That is the message from the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce in a recent “white paper” on economic development. The chamber submitted the paper to the city in March as elected officials were calling for talk to begin on economic development.

“Essentially we tried to bring everybody up to speed with a little bit of history on Bainbridge and what other communities have done with economic development,” said Jeff Waite, chairman of the board for the Chamber of Commerce.

Waite authored the white paper with assistance from Chamber CEO Rex Oliver. The paper speaks to the current state of island economics and largely calls for attracting people such as CEOs to reside on the island. The ultimate goal would be to have such figures bring their businesses with them, or start a new company. In the end, the CEOs’ companies will provide jobs on the island.

Idea finds support

Since it was submitted to the city, the white paper has circulated throughout the island’s community of decision makers and interested business parties. The response has been favorable, however, it is clear that opinions can vary on the future of Bainbridge Island’s economy.

“I generally agree with where the chamber is coming from,” said Mayor Steve Bonkowski, further noting that he has a couple other perspectives on the island’s economy.

“I really think that you can attract small businesses here that have little impact on infrastructure,” he said. “Small business with three to 10 people and are either home-based or in small offices areas.”

Bonkowski said that, ideally, someone would start a business on the island while already living here, echoing the white paper’s sentiments.

This is somewhat different than what many of the island’s neighbors on the Kitsap Peninsula are planning, he noted.

“That’s different than what (the Kitsap Economic Development Alliance) is trying to do,” Bonkowski said. “They are trying to show reasons for businesses to move to Kitsap County rather than the other side of Puget Sound.”

Such attractive qualities to existing businesses could be cost of living and an existing workforce.

Bonkowski views factors like cell service or high-speed internet as key players in island economic development, and has long sought to tackle the matters from the dais.

“I believe the city needs to do more, and be more engaged in economic development rather than just let it happen and letting land use be the tool we use to shape economic development,” Bonkowski said.

Not all agree with plan

Another island business interest, the Bainbridge Island Downtown Association, responded to the white paper with another take on the local economy.

“We cannot continue to think of Bainbridge Island as a ‘bedroom’ for CEO’s families,” said Executive Director Andie Mackin in an email to the Review. “Certainly the recent recession showed us how fragile that model is as executives lost jobs, and families left our community, directly impacting the local housing market and school enrollment.”

Mackin said she views the future island economy as one that actively seeks new employers.

“We should be looking diligently to attract new local employers who can contribute to the stability of the community by providing on-island jobs for families.”

“Over the past few years as large-scale employers have left the island, the ripple effect has been enormous,” she added. “The departure of Gravitech not only took jobs out of our local economy, but also removed 450 room nights a year from the Best Western’s bottom line.”

The chamber’s white paper equation for economic success includes quality of life, attracting key residents to the island, and ultimately job creation as a result.

“[The paper] came out of a discussion that the city manager, Rex and I had,” Waite recalled. “We were talking about moneys the city had for economic development as well as what the city’s plan was for economic development in the future.”

The white paper covers a range of topics from the island’s “eco-aware economy,” to strengthening and revitalizing commercial districts.

While noting a recent “absence of residential growth and its resulting affect on our municipally-delivered essential services,” the white paper states that the city’s leaders should be concerned about these factors.

The council, however, has been a “late-comer” to the need for such things as job creation in the island’s private sector, according to the white paper.

The chamber reaffirms the modern population trend for Bainbridge Island and encourages growing it by investing more in development and strengthening “primary economic assets,” particularly public resources and local services.

“By doing so, we are attracting business CEOs and decision makers, their spouses and children. If the chief executive desires to live here for quality-of-life reasons, the campaign is won before it has begun,” the white paper states.

Chamber cites examples

Getting CEOs to plant roots on Bainbridge is a big win for the island, according to the chamber. Those roots can grow and bear jobs as its fruit.

“Most of the businesses — folks like Avalara, Bainbridge Graduate Institute, Islandwood, these companies that employ a lot of folks — have come to Bainbridge because the CEO wanted to live here,” Waite explained. “That’s really our niche. If we can get the CEO to want to live on Bainbridge, they’ll bring their company with them.”

Bonkowski also pointed to Avalara as a good example of an island business.

“The ability to have another Avalara start here, that is something that (the Chamber) is right about,” he said. “If you get a CEO to come here, then their business will start here.”

“That’s what Avalara did,” he added. “That is a good model.”

The chamber also notes, however, that approximately 60 percent of the island’s 5,470 person workforce commute to Bainbridge from off the island.

The numbers also indicate that of the people who live on Bainbridge Island, 73 percent — or 5,843 workers — leave the island to work elsewhere, mostly in areas across the Puget Sound.

Of those commuting across the Sound, 32 percent are heading to jobs in professional, scientific, technical, education, or health-related jobs.

The numbers are based on the most recent Census data.

To help the economic numbers improve, the chamber recommends exploring new ideas, and working with what the island already has to offer, to attract dollars to the local economy.

Waite points to sports tournaments as an example. The chamber is already looking into the island's ability to host weekend tournaments, and in turn bring people onto the island.

"A weekend tournament puts a lot of heads in beds, and it benefits restaurants, the arts, stores," Waite said. "It's a way for communities to drive economics for the service industry, and attract people to your city who might not otherwise come."

But the chamber is not only targeting CEOs, the paper continues to address another considerable population on Bainbridge.

"In addition, quality factors undoubtedly attract others such as retirees, who are free to live where they wish, and whose expenditures and investments have a large impact on the community in which they chooses to settle," the paper states.

Waite the idea is very much related to attracting business leaders to the island.

"If you ask people why they moved here, it's almost always the quality of life, and that involves the schools' reputation and ease of access [to the island]," Waite said. "Really it's about people wanting to live here."

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