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More companies are calling Kitsap home
By KEVIN DWYER
For decades Kitsap County has lived off the mother's milk of three major Naval installations that grace its 285 miles of shoreline: Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Bangor Submarine Base and the Underwater Warfare Center at Keyport.
The Navy still accounts for more than 40 percent of the civilian work force in this semirural county seven miles west of downtown Seattle, but a growing number of private companies - sick of big city traffic and attracted to the area's laid back lifestyle - are setting up shop there.
Boxlight Corp. exemplifies the kind of companies that have discovered Kitsap County. When co-founders Herb and Sloan Myers went searching for a place to relocate their small, computer-based presentation system firm, they chose Poulsbo over similiar waterfront locations in Florida, Maryland and Texas.
The Myers' started their business in Tiberon, Calif., in 1985, but in a few short years California's expensive business climate of high taxes, high living costs, growing competition for employees and lack of affordable warehouse space forced them to set sail for a new home.
The couple went looking for a place where they could combine business with their love for salt water and sailing. We determined very quickly that Poulsbo was the place we wanted to be, recalls Herb Myers. We wanted to be in a small town, close to an international airport and close to a big city where there are advertising, accounting, printing and other services.
But Boxlight is not the only emerging company located in Kitsap County. Paladin Data Systems and Custom Camera Design were recognized along with Boxlight last year as three of the fastest growing companies in Washington state. Paladin, which develops database management software for Microsoft and Oracle platforms for companies such as Starbucks and IBM, ranked second on the list. It was started by four former Navy civilian engineers in 1994 and now has 58 employees and offices in Seattle, Spokane and Salt Lake City in addition to its Poulsbo headquarters. The company also operates the only Microsoft/Novell certification center in West Puget Sound. Gary Macy, Paladin's executive vice president, says locating in Kitsap County makes sense for his company on several fronts.
Basically, it boils down to quality of life, Macy said. There are lower housing costs and more upper-end housing here for a reasonable cost than you can get on the other side. Macy says Kitsap's lower tax burden, lack of traffic congestion and good public schools add up to other plusses.
There's also more of a sense of community here than over there, he said. Paladin hasn't had any trouble recruiting technical employees who earn between $50,000 and $90,000 a year. A lot of high-tech people live here already, he says. We haven't had to relocate anyone. We've had great luck recruiting people right here, (and) these are experienced high-end people. We've never solicited people outside Kitsap, ever.
Custom Camera, which refurbishes disposable cameras and repackages them for use as promotional gifts for consumers and businesses, is moving its headquarters, manufacturing operations and 132 employees to the Port of Bremerton this year from nearby Key Center in Pierce County. Bob Waye, president of the Custom Camera, credited Kitsap County and port authorities with expediting site selection and permitting processes.
He originally wanted to build in Pierce County but got hung up in that jurisdiction's planning pipeline for more than 170 days.
Everyone took a real active role and made Custom Camera feel like they're part of Kitsap County, said County Commissioner Chris Endresen. It's a real win. The port has a master plan and the property is properly zoned. That's how it should work.
Custom Camera, which has operated a sorting facility on port grounds for more than three years, will construct two new buildings on a three-acre parcel at the port to house its manufacturing plant and administrative offices. Waye said Kitsap's business-friendly environment, quality of life and stable entry-level work force made his decision to relocate there that much easier.
Other companies, too, have found Kitsap County to be an easy place in which to operate. Seattle Limb Systems, a maker of prosthetics for amputees, moved to the county in 1994 when it couldn't find adequate and affordable space to expand in Seattle.
Co-founders Jim Cairns and Don Poggi have not regretted their decision. The people (here) have been well educated and have a good work ethic, said Cairns, and there's a plentiful supply of them.
This is a good place to run a technology company, adds Poggi, a former Boeing engineer. A week after being here, we had a T-1 line in place ... It has made me a booster for bringing high-tech companies here. Mark Dassel, president of Twenty-First Research Century Corp., shares similiar sentiments.
Last year, Dassel was about to move his small, but growing research and development firm out of Kitsap County when he couldn't find an adequate piece of land on which to build the demonstration plant he envisions for his company. A last minute land swap between Bremertons city and port allowed Dassel and his investors to purchase a 27-acre parcel adjacent to port property where he intends to construct a multimillion dollar demonstration plant to test patented processes for a range of industrial pollutants.
Twenty First Century has 15 well-paid employees at its current site but will add another 30 people to its payroll and possibly more once the new plant is completed and sales begin in earnest. Dassel, a former Dupont Co. chemist who grew up in nearby Sequim, credits the cooperative efforts of Kitsap government agencies with retaining his firm. He says the county's quality of life, environmental ethic, access to the University of Washington and Seattle and its geographic setting near the Olympic Mountains and the Hood Canal are wonderful calling cards for attracting new companies.
I see downtown Seattle and its higher-end cultural stuff as my backyard, said Dassel. It's easier for me to get there (by ferry) than (for) people in Bellevue.
But not everything is rosy in Kitsapland. The county's comprehensive growth management plan was just approved after being rejected by the state on two previous occasions. Developers and business leaders alike complain that there is not enough industrial zoned land with adequate infrastructure in place nor enough of an inventory of up-to-date office space to lease to be competitive. In fact, the county lost out on 400 potential primary jobs last year due, in part, to its real estate shortcomings.
But Warren Olson, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Kitsap County, said there's reason to be optimistic about Kitsap's future.
The message is getting out that Kitsap County wants to diversify its economy and is seeking relationships with quality companies, Olson said. That's a good message. Internally, we're telling local developers and land owners and the community-at-large that we need quality facilities in which to put these companies. That message is beginning to take root as well.
Kevin Dwyer is director of Business Recruitment and Marketing for the Economic Development Council of Kitsap County.
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