Mayor of the Little Town that Could Gives PO an Earful

The creative way the Central Washington resort town was saved could have salient parallels for Port Orchard leaders.

By Chris Henry
In 1965, Mel Wyles, then serving in Vietnam, received a letter from his mother telling him that she’d put up everything the family owned as collateral — including their restaurant in downtown Leavenworth — to remodel the place like a Bavarian chalet.
Desperate times called for desperate measures.
“Leavenworth was becoming a ghost town,” said Wyles, now into his third term as Leavenworth’s mayor, who spoke Thursday to the Port Orchard Chamber of Commerce. “There was more empty buildings on the front street of Leavenworth than there were businesses.”
The description had a familiar ring to chamber members. Although Port Orchard may not be that bad, most merchants, property owners and local officials agree the city has a ways to go before it achieves its full potential.
Wyles, a no-nonsense kind of a guy, was there offer a few gentle words of advice.
“You’ve got to start fighting,” he said. “And you don’t fight with each other. You’ve got to band together because everyone down the road wants what you want. … Every minute you waste, you’re dead meat.”

Wyles described how his mother, Laverne Peterson, and four other business owners in the city’s downtown core banded together to start a movement that has made Leavenworth the “Ultimate Holiday Town U.S.A.”
The town, population a shade over 2,000, doesn’t do so poorly the rest of the year. There are special events 22 weekends out of the year, attracting 1.4 to 1.7 million visitors annually, more than the entire state of Alaska, according to Leavenworth’s Chamber of Commerce.
But it didn’t happen without some element of risk. When Mrs. Peterson and the others, working on the advice of a consultant from the University of Washington, chose to imitate a town in the Alps, “the City Council and the mayor didn’t even want to touch it. They thought they’d lost their minds,” Wyles said.
But as more business owners jumped on the Bavarian bandwagon, Leavenworth’s engine started to pick up steam. This year, the town earned roughly $820,000 in hotel/motel tax, about 10 times more than Port Orchard, with roughly $80,000 and a population of 8,300 at last count.
Port Orchard Mayor Kim Abel definitely took note.
“He’s got a lot of energy and it’s clearly rubbed off on Leavenworth,” she said. “It sounds to me like they just got lucky with their original vision. Then they stuck to it.”
The Port Orchard City Council has been wrestling for more than a year with a downtown plan that local civic and business leaders hope will be the key to Port Orchard’s economic revitalization. The council has heard copious amounts of public testimony from residents concerned about building heights, parking and other issues, as well as business and property owners anxious for some support.
Abel makes no apologies for allowing public process to play itself out.
While she admires Wyles, she said his kick-butt-and-take-names approach is “certainly not my style as a mayor.”
In Leavenworth, Wyles said, everybody pulls his or her own weight, or else.
To business owners, he says, “Step up to the plate and get your wallets out. If you think you’re going to get a free ride, you’d better get a ride out of town.

One thought on “Mayor of the Little Town that Could Gives PO an Earful

  1. Ms. Henry:

    The Mayor of Leavenworth hit the nail on the head when he said “Step up to the plate and get your wallets out. If you think you’re going to get a free ride, you’d better get a ride out of town”. I like that statement since he is saying that the property owners who want to do something productive with their property should be allowed to do it. It might take changing the existing rules that our City Council has been following for so many years. Following these rules they did, right down the drain into almost a complete collapse of our nice little town. They did manage to build themselves a monument to themselves in the form of a magnificent City Hall, which is not centrally located to the population base nor is it the most efficient building to construct and maintain. The operating costs of this large and ornate building are much higher than a cinderblock building, with a typical commercial roof, on flat ground with decent parking all around it, which our present City Hall has none of those things. This new City hall does not even conform to the height requirements that the city has established. In using the old site to build their edifice they took valuable land off of the tax rolls. Yes, I understand that it never was on the tax rolls because it was a government building already but, it could have been sold to a developer to build something like a hotel or conference center, right across the street from a boat launch facility. The City could have used existing or purchased flat land on Mile Hill, or elsewhere, to put their offices since I do not believe they need the marine and mountain views while working for the citizens of Port Orchard unless that is considered part of their pay.

    My wife and I have lived in Port Orchard only 14 years but in that time we have seen the population grow dramatically. The traffic has increased to such a point that driving to and from downtown during morning or afternoon commute times is risky at best. There are no parking spaces for potential shoppers to park near the stores in town. A person might be able to park in the waterfront Park and Ride that is maintained by the Port of Bremerton and the City of Port Orchard and heavily used by Kitsap Transit. After parking in there one must hike through the parked cars, go around a block or two to finally arrive at the store of your choice. Walking to and from downtown is not a pleasant experience either. During the hours of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. it is riasky to navigate the streets of Port Orchard on foot, not to mention driving and then do not forget the drinking drivers when the bars close at 2 a.m! There have been 5 wrecks in front of my home where an ambulance or a wrecker was required. There has been a death within sight of my home and there was another pedestrian hit within sight of my home and another death a block and a half away, all on the same road, Bay Street.

    It is no wonder that the shops in downtown Port Orchard struggle to remain open. There are some nice shops that have real potential in this nice small town, but there is a freeway, or more accurately State Highway 160/166, running through it. A few years ago a proposal was put forth to the City Council to renovate the downtown a section at a time and rebuild the stores on the waterfront, thus taking advantage of the real asset, which is Port Orchards waterfront. Relocate the highway against the foot of the hill and put the Park and Ride (if you must have one) between the highway and the newly relocated community. Since virtually none of the downtown buildings would meet current health, safety and earthquake codes this rebuilding of Port Orchard would be a real plus for the community as a whole. I believe that this idea was proposed by the Port Orchard Redevelopment Committee; please correct me if I am incorrect. The person who led this drive was laughed out of leadership by people stating things like “we do not need another strip mall”. Well, how interesting that statement is since what is a strip mall? A Strip Mall is a collection of buildings that are all connected by an outside covered walkway/awning that has a common name; Welcome to Port Orchard. This is exactly what we have had and continue to have today. It took our present Mayor her entire term in office to get the City Council to do something about the thing they have called a “Marquee” that is actually an awning. Now what did our City Fathers and Mothers do? They tore down the decorative pickets above the awning and replaced the rotted wood and put a coat of paint on the remaining awning; olive drab green I believe is the color for the Army and Marines and doing that in a Navy town is close to heresy, or some might think. Maybe they were trying to camoflague it. The City Council is trying to fit the little picture which is skewed on the wall, and yet they are missing the big picture that took so many years to accomplish, if Port Orchard could be called an accomplishment. Virtually nothing has been done to fix the big picture that is falling off the wall!

    Our little town is desperately hanging onto life and some feel that it is already on life support. Well, break out the de-fib paddles because that is what it is going to take to awaken these folks.


    Stephen S.

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