The skies could be threatening rain and Christopher Keuss, executive director of the Port of Edmonds, would probably still look out his...

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The skies could be threatening rain and Christopher Keuss, executive director of the Port of Edmonds, would probably still look out his office window on the waterfront and proclaim it to be a beautiful day.

It’s no wonder — in the past 10 years, he’s watched the Port’s flagship marina turn from a soggy mess after a brutal storm into an award-winning visitor destination, with more improvements on the way.

On a recent summer morning, Keuss pointed out the reasons for his enthusiasm.

The newly finished public plaza sports an updated playground and seating area, a tiny oasis on the one-mile walking path that runs from the Kingston ferry dock to the south end of the marina. The one-of-a-kind interactive weather center, created in part by kids in the Edmonds School District’s Homeschool Resource Center last year, gives visitors information on everything from wind speed to ocean activity.

Dozens and dozens of flowers burst with colorful variety from nearly every corner of the marina.

And then there is the main reason for Keuss’ sunny attitude — the private boats lined up in the docks, completely filling all of the marina’s 730 in-water slips. A months-long waiting list exists for a spot.

“I mean, this is cool,” said Keuss, who uses the teenager-style slang frequently to describe Port activities.

While the Port of Edmonds can’t compete with the cruise-ship traffic at the Port of Seattle to the south or the commercial traffic at the Port of Everett to the north, what it can do is go after the private boaters who are looking for a good place to visit.

And that, in a nutshell, is its current strategy.

Edmonds’ Port is medium in size, with an annual budget of about $7 million, but it has the largest marina in Washington with covered dock facilities.

“We’re in a very unique location,” Keuss said, “because we’re right in the middle of two fishing areas.”

Adding to those assets has been a new program designed to attract visitor traffic. Already, guest moorage has increased 20 percent over the past 2 ½ years.

Also on the table are plans for the redevelopment of about 25 acres — partially owned by the Port — that link the marina with the Edmonds city center.

The Port recently put together a group of community residents to mull over long-term plans for the fairly rundown property in the hopes that a shot of new development will help revive the area. Those plans will be presented at public meetings to be scheduled next month.

“We want a more attractive place that will get a higher occupancy and then a better payoff for the taxpayers,” said Marianne Burkhart, president of the Port’s five-member commission.

Destination: Edmonds

In 1996, about a year before Keuss stepped into his role as head of the Port, a raging storm tore through the marina, racking up a price tag of $13 million in reconstruction costs.

Marina employees likened the destruction to a “war zone,” and one boat owner lamented that it was like “losing part of a family.”

Fast forward 10 years, and the Port has scooped up one of the industry’s coveted prizes: the 2006 Marina of the Year award from Marina Dock Age magazine.

Keuss can’t help but rave — he mentions the honor almost as much as he describes the Port’s activities as “cool.”

He attributes the win in part to the recently launched Destination: Port of Edmonds program, designed to encourage visitors to dock at the marina and spend money in the city.

Visitors who use the guest slips at the marina — about 100 at any given time — receive a bag filled with information on the area, as well as a discount book for 66 businesses. The marina also offers a free shuttle service to Edmonds’ quaint downtown during business hours.

Jerry Wade, who was visiting on a recent afternoon from Hawaii, said he admired the marina’s cleanliness and especially the apparent security measures in place. Locked gates bar entrance to the wet slips unless you’re an owner.

“I like the covered boat areas,” Wade said. “You can obviously leave valuables there.”

Guest moorage slips range from 80 cents to $1.10 per linear foot of boat a day, with the first four hours free of charge.

Permanent slips in the water range from $150 a month to about $783, depending on the size of the slip and whether it’s covered.

Dick Kohl, of Edmonds, hopes to buy a boat to house at the marina, so he often visits the waterfront to scout out the area.

“It’s a great marina,” he said. “I only live a mile from here, so I can walk.”

A link for the future

Increasingly, the Port of Edmonds’ role has been to serve as a bridge between its roughly 68-acre property and the nearby city shopping area. That’s one reason why redevelopment of the acreage sitting between downtown and the waterfront, known as the Harbor Square redevelopment area, is such a big deal.

The Port owns about 11 acres and is working with the city and local private-property owners The McNaughton Group and Edmonds Shopping Center (ESC) Associates to explore prospects for the area.

Looking beyond the existing businesses, including the Waterfront Antique Mall, officials say there’s a lot of room to grow, especially upward.

“Most folks in town have said that they want to see that area transformed,” said Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson. “They’re tired of looking at it — it’s almost a blight.”

A group of 33 community members has been meeting this summer to discuss possibilities for the area, focusing on retail and hospitality businesses such as boutiques, restaurants and hotels.

From their ideas, group members came up with four separate plans for the area. Seattle-based LMN Architects will create conceptual drawings that will be presented to the public next month.

Property owners plan to ask the Edmonds City Council to rezone the area, which would pave the way for redevelopment in the next several years, said Kevin Hanchett, director of sales and acquisitions for The McNaughton Group.

“This is going to be a significant project,” said Hanchett. “It’s going to be the face of the city of Edmonds.”

That’s important to Edmonds residents like Bill Brougher who want to make sure the Port and the city are bringing in the right kind of development.

Brougher, who volunteered on the community advisory panel, lived in Lake Forest Park for most of his life before moving to Edmonds six years ago.

“I always resented not having a downtown area,” he said. “I love this place, so I figured maybe I can come up with some ideas.”

A former employee in the engineering department at the Port of Seattle, Brougher thinks developers should add more bike paths and parking as part of any new development.

“We need to spruce this place up and tie it in with downtown Edmonds,” he said.

Kirsten Orsini-Meinhard: 425-745-7804 or kmeinhard@seattletimes.com