As he watched 32,000-pound concrete tiles peeled off the Harborside Parking Garage that he owns, a fedora-topped Ron Sher (in photo, at left) stopped to take time for a few questions from this reporter. The Seattle developer, who’s turned failing malls into vibrant community centers, stopped by Bremerton to plan the facade that will replace the tiles on the garage, still known by many as the JC Penney’s building.
We sat down at the Bremerton Bar & Grill (a restaurant he built and owns) for a few questions. What’s his next move, you ask? Here’s what he told me.
Q: To start, let’s go back to 2007. Why did you invest in Bremerton in the first place?
A: Bremerton has got a great infrastructure and it’s got a great location, and a great history. It’s got the economic base of the shipyard and, at that time, I had a relationship with Cary Bozeman. He talked me into it. I spent most of my career trying to improve and create activity and vitality in communities on a smaller scale and I said, ‘wow, here’s a chance to do it for a city.'” Everything seemed right and everything was growing, I got enthusiastic, and here I am.”
Q: Things didn’t pan out the way we thought, in terms of the economy. How did your plans change?
A: Yeah, everything sort of dried up but we didn’t want to give up. I was working a lot with (former Bremerton economic development manager) Gary Sexton and I wanted to do something with this corner for the sake of Bremerton (where the Bremerton Bar & Grill is). I felt that I hadn’t done what I wanted with the Penney’s building, and I still haven’t, and I wanted to make a serious difference and I felt we could do that if we took this corner, this old bank building and put something vital that makes a statement about Bremerton. We did that, and I’m pleased with it. But I haven’t given up on the other (Penney’s) project. Its time just hasn’t seemed to have arrived.
Q: You’re not in the residential development business, but you’ve said apartments could go on top on the JC Penney’s Building. Who could do that kind of work, if not you?
A: I’ve never done any residential development. And I’ve always felt I needed a good residential partner and for years I tried really hard to find one. I wanted somebody who would do a great job and do something we could be really proud of. I put out the word but it hasn’t shown up. We still have a long term goal of creating a lot of vitality here but it’s always been a bit of a chicken and egg issue. You can’t get the retail because you don’t have the residential and you can’t get the residential because you don’t have the vitality of the retail. And one of the things I love about our project is you can come up with enough residential to support the retail on a smaller scale and you can get away from that chicken and the egg conundrum. And that’s the way we’re looking at it.
Q: Has the City of Bremerton been good to work with?
A: The city’s always been good to work with. They were great with (former mayor) Cary (Bozeman) and (current mayor) Patty (Lent) has been great. The city has not been the problem. The fast ferry would be huge. What’s happening on the Seattle waterfront, right now, is a problem, but when it’s completed it will be a huge plus. Bremerton will happen. We know that — we all know that. We all keep waiting. And I think we’re tired of waiting.
Q: What will it take for Bremerton to ‘happen?’ What’s that last roadblock, or last few roadblocks?
A: We have to find a good residential developer who has the right ethic, financial capacity and the enthusiasm to make the investment in Bremerton. And I would be happy to partner with that person. But on my own, I’m not going to be able to do it by myself.
Q: When you purchased the Penney’s building, the concept was a mixed use development — book store, health facility, apartments and more. Is that still the game plan, or has it changed?
A: I think that the game plan might change. We have to have a really good economic plan for it to work, and it seems that looking at the neighborhood and everything around it, that it might be best to revitalize all the retail around the building, rather than take out valuable parking, when there’s already so much retail available. Use this parking to support that retail and the apartments. But if we get this done, it will be a collaboration between myself and the apartment builder. We’ll have to feel it out.