Months later, water bottling plant remains only an idea

EVERETT — It was a key point in County Executive Aaron Reardon’s big annual speech: By mid-year, he said, people would be employed building a state-of-the-art water bottling plant by the Snohomish River.

It was, he added, evidence of how his office was working to bring jobs and investment to the county.

More than four months later, nothing’s happened.

The Evergreen Bottling plant today remains only an idea grounded in personal relationships with no public evidence of concrete plans to make it real. Its main advocate is a beauty-products entrepreneur whose company is in bankruptcy. There are no agreements in place for a site, a supply of water or required permits.

Donna Ambrose, the Reardon staffer in charge of economic development, has since left her $106,000-per-year Snohomish County job to form another new company with the key deal-maker in the bottling venture.

That’s Bellevue businesswoman Nancy Yi, who owns Sea2O, an energy-drink maker seeking bankruptcy protection, and another company that makes sea-derived beauty products.

Neither Yi nor Ambrose returned repeated calls and emails seeking to speak with them for this story. Reardon and others involved in the proposed Evergreen Bottling plant blame the lack of progress on Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis.

“My job as the executive, especially in this economy, is to successfully recruit businesses to this area,” Reardon said. “An unforeseen natural disaster, followed up by a nuclear catastrophe, is nothing you can predict.”

Reardon said he wasn’t aware of who Ambrose is working for now.

County emails from earlier this year indicate Ambrose was assisting Yi with business issues before she left her county job.

They also show that when Reardon made his Feb. 9 announcement in his State of the County address, the factory plan consisted of merely an assurance of interest from an investor, and a business outline prepared to help sell county officials on the idea.

At that time, the bottling venture wasn’t even registered with the state.

A public-private partnership

Ambrose, a former spokeswoman for Everett Transit and Community Transit, was a Reardon analyst and spokeswoman in 2005 and 2006. She left the county to go into real estate and returned in 2008 when Reardon appointed her as his economic development director.

County emails show Yi was a pivotal figure in Ambrose’s efforts to bring a bottling company to the county. Last fall, Ambrose and Yi began exchanging emails about potential investors.

In addition to Sea2O, which Reardon once endorsed in a YouTube video, Yi also runs Biosea Corp., which sells anti-aging and weight-loss products derived from a type of seaweed the company claims is only found off the coast of Korea.

Through her connections, Yi introduced Ambrose to an investor from New York, Mike Shin of AABACS Group, Inc. On Jan. 25, Shin, his son, Yi and Ambrose flew over the Port of Everett to tour potential bottling sites.

Although on the county’s payroll at the time, Ambrose assured Reardon and his top aides that she, not taxpayers, would foot the bill for the airplane tour. “The aerial tour was on me not the county,” she wrote in an email.

Following his tour, Shin sent the county favorable feedback, saying he wanted to pursue the project.

This happened as Yi’s Sea2O was struggling to pay creditors. The Bellevue company filed for bankruptcy protection Feb. 7, and, in documents filed last month, listed about $179,000 in assets, about $1.5 million in liabilities and no payroll expenses. That’s a hard fall for a venture Yi once boasted was such a success that she predicted sales of up to $7 million by 2008.

On Jan. 7, Ambrose suggested that Yi and her Sea2O senior vice president, Dave Markle, consider working with a Mercer Island company that might be able to do bottling work for them. A month later, on Feb. 9, Ambrose sent Yi an email with a list of possible names for the new bottling company, including “Evergreen Cascade Group,” “Evergreen Pacific Group,” “Evergreen Northwest Group” and “Evergreen PacWest Group.”

On Feb. 18, the county’s economic development director emailed Yi advice on artwork for Sea2O products.

“Just noticed ‘Citrus’ is spelled wrong on the Citrus Fruit label. Also, I had a comment that the photo of the runner is from a long distance (and a bit scrawny) than the close up photo shots of the other cans,” Ambrose wrote.

On March 18, Ambrose left her $106,000-a-year county job to form a consulting business with Yi. DNA International Business Consulting LLC was registered with the state March 14.

Ambrose remains the city’s main point of contact for Evergreen Bottling, said Lanie McMullin, Everett’s economic development director.

“My contact is only Donna,” McMullin said. “She’s really the lead on this project from the very beginning.”

Markle said Sea2O and Evergreen Bottling, where he’s general manager, are separate. The main link between the companies, he said, is that he’s worked for both. Both companies are registered at the same Bellevue office suite.

Markle said Yi plans to be a minority investor in the bottling company once Sea2O emerges from bankruptcy. According to the business plan, the factory would create about 50 jobs and double that in two years, shipping more than 15 million bottles of specialty water to Asian markets every month.

Evergreen Bottling remains committed to Everett, Markle said, though plans got pushed back because Japan’s March disasters affected a business partner who would handle overseas distribution.

“We’re still moving forward with the facility, but with the catastrophe that happened in Japan, we’ve been delayed by six months, or possibly eight months,” he said.

What’s next?

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said he originally thought Reardon’s announcement was “premature.” It still is, he said. In the months since the announcement, Evergreen Bottling’s representatives haven’t taken any concrete steps to move it forward.

“Since that original contact, we have not heard of anything definite,” Stephanson said.

The city would need to approve permits and arrange for water to be sold to the plant. The port would have to lease or sell land. So far, nothing’s happened.

Port Commissioner Mark Wolken, a strong Reardon supporter and a former Everett economic development director, said he was happy when he first heard about the bottling plant. The fact that Ambrose moved from a government job to private employment, for him, is nothing unusual.

“It happens, it happens everywhere, all the time,” Wolken said. “To put a spotlight on this specific instance I think is inappropriate.”

Furthermore, the slow pace of things is understandable, given Japan’s disaster, he said.

Imports of bottled water to Japan have increased since the earthquake because of concerns about radiation in local water, said Scott Hitchman, the Tokyo-based CEO of the Milton Group, which represents the Washington state Department of Agriculture. Japanese regulations for bottled water are generally not difficult to meet for a producer working under stringent U.S. guidelines.

The earthquake hasn’t slowed the process much, nor damaged ports.

If Evergreen Bottling becomes reality, the company will be angling for a piece of a vast and potentially lucrative Asian market. It’s also a tough market.

The high cost of shipping water makes exporting bottled water a tricky business, said David Anderson, an international trade specialist with the state agriculture department.

Whereas a well-developed brand from the U.S. might have a chance at capturing a piece of the Japanese market, a startup faces big challenges, he said.

Reardon includes the bottling plant among his various successes in recruiting businesses to the county.

After his State of the County announcement about the plant, Reardon wrote a congratulatory email to Ambrose and his staff.

“Like I’ve said many times Donna,” Reardon wrote, “we’d make a killing in commercial real estate if we just didn’t care so much about our community.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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