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Sunday, February 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Maritime foundation project founders

Seattle Times staff reporters

The idea is to build a home for Seattle's storied maritime history, a center that would attract 300,000 visitors a year to the shores of South Lake Union.

But two years after the city was supposed to sign an agreement with a coalition of maritime groups to build the centerpiece of the new South Lake Union Park, the project is adrift.

The Maritime Heritage Foundation, designated by the City Council in July 2000 as the developer of a maritime center, has struggled to raise money for the $30 million project. The nonprofit group failed to make a profit on its first high-profile test, last year's tall-ships event. And it has been unable to find enough donations to complete a pier for historic ships.

The troubles have caused growing friction among the five nonprofit groups that started the foundation, leading some insiders to question whether the organization is up to the task.

The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department has lost faith in the foundation's ability to finance and operate a maritime center, museum and other facilities at South Lake Union.

In a recent letter, Parks and Recreation Superintendent Ken Bounds called it "too tall an order" for the foundation and said he wanted to "lighten the load" on the group by:

• Handing over some of its fund raising to the nonprofit Seattle Parks Foundation.

• Having the Mayor's Office recruit new board members for the foundation.

• Hiring a consultant to determine if a maritime center is even financially viable.

"We've been reluctant to negotiate a long-term agreement (with the foundation) when we have not been confident with their ability to perform," Bounds said.

The city is not the only player questioning the role of the foundation.

"I can see the city losing patience, and I don't blame them," said Dick Wagner, founding director of the Center for Wooden Boats, one of the five founding members of the Maritime Heritage Foundation. "We ought to have a fresh start — a new organization and new director — and stop screwing up."

Bob Sittig, the foundation's executive director, said, "I agree with Dick the organization needs new blood to go to the next level. I informed the board last fall that if they found someone more appropriate for this job than I am, I would have no problem stepping aside."

He added that he has already trimmed his schedule from four days to 20 hours a week. Sittig was paid about $40,000 last year when he worked the longer hours, said Roger Ottenbach, the maritime foundation's president.

Stunning views

The 12-acre park is an unpolished gem at the geographic center of Seattle. The former U.S. Naval Reserve base, with stunning views and access to the lake, is now home to wildlife, wooden-boat buffs and a historic armory.

The city, which bought much of the property from the Navy three years ago, wants to make it a focal point of the high-tech neighborhood that billionaire Paul Allen is building, as well as a place for festivals and other regional events.

The debate about the foundation's future is heating up because the city is getting closer to a final design for the new park, which, in addition to a maritime center, envisions a Native American village, waterfront promenade and possibly an open-air amphitheater.

The city will spend $5 million from the Pro-Parks Levy to get the new park started. The parks foundation is hoping to raise another $10 million to $15 million from private sources.

The Maritime Heritage Foundation wants to develop a complex that would include a wharf, museum and skills-demonstration facilities.

That's where the problems arise. In the last three years, the maritime foundation has raised $2.2 million for a $3.2 million wharf for historic ships.

The City Council directed the Parks Department to draw up a formal agreement by early 2001 to develop a maritime center. But that never happened.

Maritime foundation officials say they've been hurt by the economy and the lack of a binding deal. It makes raising money much harder, they say.

"The fact is we can't draw a sketch for potential donors and say 'This is what it's going to be,' " Sittig, the director, said. "That is a major sticking point. We can't be successful until we have an agreement."

Bounds acknowledges this creates a "chicken-and-egg" dilemma. But he said it didn't excuse all of the maritime foundation's shortcomings.

Bounds has sent mixed signals about the foundation's future. On one hand, he insisted the group is not being eased out. At the same time, he said it's too early to tell if the city will want a long-term agreement with the foundation.

New executive director

The emerging solution appears to be this: The foundation will soon get a new executive director and board members, and the city will give it a chance to prove successful on smaller tasks, such as completing the wharf for historic ships.

Then, a new deal might be reached.

Mayor Greg Nickels has made redevelopment of South Lake Union a priority, and he sees the park as a key in his plans.

The mayor said there were specific people he would like to suggest for the board but wouldn't say who or how many.

Ottenbach, the maritime foundation's president, agreed that his board, which now is made up mostly of maritime enthusiasts rather than civic leaders, needs to be strengthened.

But he hesitates to ask people with more influence to join the organization "if our only job is to manage the wharf. That's different than developing the whole maritime aspect of the park."

Ottenbach said he continues to negotiate with Bounds and expects to announce "what's being hatched" in another month. That would still allow the city to make a decision on the park's design in June, as planned.

Wagner, of the Center for Wooden Boats, remains unimpressed.

"It's complicated because we're so nicey-nice in Seattle," he said. "Someone needs to say, 'You (messed) up, get the hell out of here.' "

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

J. Martin McOmber: 206-464-2022 or mmcomber@seattletimes.com

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