How Bremerton found its own identity and what’s changed over the years

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BREMERTON, Wash -- Bremerton, and the people who live there, share a unique character unlike any other spot in Western Washington.

That spirit and identity has endured for generations.  But as much of the region is transformed what does that mean for Kitsap County’s largest city?

It turns out Bremerton may be bucking a number of trends seen in many other local cities including unchecked gentrification, growing regional identification and homeownership prioritized over home rental.

Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler and Bremerton Police Chief Jim Burchett are both new to their leadership positions, but not new to the city.  Both men have spent decades living and working in Bremerton.

Q13 News sat down with Mayor Wheeler and Chief Burchett and discussed what sets their city apart.

Grow up, work hard, make something of yourself

Big cities on the West Coast have become so expensive it’s tough for kids out of school to afford living in them.  At the same time small towns across the west are losing their young people to larger urban areas as mass migration continues across demographics.

But Bremerton – a midsized city due west across the Puget Sound from Seattle – has largely remained a place where you can be born, grow up, make something of yourself and stay to enjoy it.

“If you work hard enough and you’re not afraid of hard work -and all types of hard work – then you can achieve,” said Mayor Wheeler.  “I’m proud of our city that you can still do that here.”

The Mayor says he grew up in a modest duplex in Bremerton.  After school he went to work fitting pipes at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.  He spent decades working his way up in his field.  Eventually he decided to go back to school – he did it at night – and then he decided to run for the city council.

“I retired from the shipyard and 2.5 years later I’m mayor,” said Wheeler.  “This town shaped me, it shaped that mindset.”

Police Chief Jim Burchett agrees and cites his own son as an example.

“[He] got great grades in high school – had opportunities to go elsewhere -  he didn’t want to move either,” said Chief Burchett.

So his son enrolled at Olympic College in Bremerton.  He was awarded scholarships.  Through a partnership between OC and Washington State University Burchett was able to earn a four year engineering degree.

“Then he got a job in the shipyard as an engineer and he is a 23 year old gentleman with a wife and a house in Bremerton,” said Chief Burchett.  “You can’t do that anywhere else but Bremerton.”

That’s all possible because Bremerton has held on to its blue collar and working class roots.  It has grown high education through expansion at Olympic College.  It has grown jobs by working hand-in-hand with the US Navy and the shipyard.

People can live here because it has real housing for all income levels.

“Got a great job here.  Got a house here.  Just what the mayor said, you can do it right here,” said Burchett.

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Bremerton will never be a suburb of King County or Seattle

The red-hot real estate market is transforming wide swaths of Western Washington for better and for worse.

But in Bremerton it’s a very different tension about land and location.

Both the Mayor and the Chief said they love the city’s proximity to sports, theatre, culture and opportunity in King County.  Yet, in the next breath both are adamant that Bremerton is not a suburb.

The Mayor says Bremerton is its own place and that’s how it should stay.

“Bremerton will never be a suburb of King County or Seattle,” said Mayor Wheeler.  “We are our own separate city.  We have our own culture.”

By that the Mayor seems to mean the blue collar identity as well as the hard-working grit.  He also means the city structurally is something different.

“We are one of the few full service cities in the state,” explained Mayor Wheeler.  “We’re used to providing our own police, fire, our own water and sewer and stormwater utilities.  We have our own dam.     It’s not just that.  We are proud to be who we are here.”

Chief Burchett says anyone who craves city life and excitement can easily fill that need with one quick ferry ride east.

“If you want the city, it’s right there.   If you need the airport its right there,” said Chief Burchett.   “But if you want to get out in the mountains it’s a little bit due west.  You wanna go fishing you can go fishing.”

Chief Burchett calls Bremerton God’s country.

“I don’t ever intend on leaving,” he said.

Under the previous mayor the city spent thousands of dollars on a multi-media campaign titled “Move to Bremerton” and aimed at people priced out of Seattle.

Mayor Wheeler ended that campaign.  He said he wanted to stop focusing on people who aren’t in Bremerton and refocus on the people who are in Bremerton.

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Embracing the rental market

Gangs, prostitution and violence plagued Bremerton through the 80s and 90s.

Today the city says it has cleaned up those issues and is safer than it has ever been thanks to a combination of factors.

First an historically rough and tumble police force brought into line and refocused on helping and supporting.

Second, a city leadership that listened to residents and passed laws to help clean things up.

Third a change in the Navy which now focuses intently on holding sailors accountable for on and off duty actions.

But when asked about how to keep things going today both agreed on one key thing, a thriving home rental market in Bremerton.

“We need to provide a diverse range of housing for a number of reasons,” said Mayor Wheeler.  “A lot of folks are getting out of high school, I want them to be able to live in their own city.   They’re going to have to rent.  It’s going to have to be affordable.  I want workforce housing.  Not every job is going to be a tech industry job.  Some are going to be for the coffee shops I want to see spring up or the different or service industry all over the city.”

Forty percent of the housing stock in the city of Bremerton are rentals.  In Seattle it’s much lower, just one in six.  Mayor Wheeler says Seattle is losing something by not better supporting a home rental market.

“They’re losing themselves,” said Mayor Wheeler.  “They are out of control with some of their issues.  We still have our identity here and I am proud of it.”

Chief Burchett says national statistics may indicated that rental homes produce more calls for service than homes lived in by owners, but he says that’s not the case in Bremerton.

In fact, he said many rental homes are lived in by military families and cited the stricter naval oversight of sailor behavior.

“If we didn’t have rental capacity the navy might consider closing and going somewhere else and we can't have that,” said Chief Burchett.

Bremerton has one of the highest rates of home rental vs ownership in the region.  Mayor Wheeler says that has led to diversity in race and income in Bremerton.

As for homelessness, both men say plentiful and affordable rental properties lower barriers to get people in need off the streets and into homes as well.

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