Gem of the South Puget Sound

City of Olympia, WA
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

The City of Olympia is known worldwide for its many tourist attractions, tremendous scenery, thriving arts community, unique historic downtown and more. The city welcomes visitors, artists, entrepreneurs, and residents who appreciate the natural beauty, rich culture, and splendor offered by the Pacific Northwest and the Puget Sound area.
Olympia is the capital city of the state of Washington and the county seat of Thurston County, located at the southern end of Puget Sound with views of Mount Rainier and the magnificent Olympic and Cascade Mountains. The city is approximately fifty-five miles from Seattle and about one hundred miles from Portland, the largest city in Oregon. The city is centrally located with access to several ports and coastal communities. Conveniently, Interstate 5, the main highway on the West Coast, runs through the city.

Incorporated in 1859, Olympia has a rich history and diverse economy. In the early 1850s, Olympia developed around the waterfront and quickly became a hub of maritime commerce. Many people seeking new opportunity in the capital flocked to the city, which at one time had the largest population of any town on the Puget Sound. State government grew rapidly and a Supreme Court decision in 1954 mandated that State office headquarters would locate in Olympia.

In the 1960s, the time of smokestacks and plywood mills drew mostly to an end along Olympia’s waterfront when several mills closed, victims of changing markets.

Today, most people still think “government” when they think of Olympia. With one third of wages paid by the public sector, public employment not only brings an educated workforce but a stable economic base.

Over the years, the City has worked to diversify its economic base to extend beyond government to include education and business. This effort has worked to strengthen relationships with private sector employers in the community.

“Our council acknowledged the need to hire an individual who is focused on building strong public private relationships,” says Community Planning and Development Director Keith Stahley. He has worked for the City since 2005.

To help implement changes and raise Olympia’s profile in business and other areas, Renée Sunde was hired as the Economic Development Director for Olympia in July 2015. Sunde has a background in marketing and business development and previously served as deputy director for the Thurston Economic Development Council. “One of our priorities is a focus on economic development, and it’s been rewarding to step into this new role,” she says. “Partnering with community stakeholders in what is now called the Thurston Community Economic Alliance will be key to supporting the region’s economy and the success of Olympia’s economic future.”

Olympia has much to offer to employers locating to the state capital. Its population of over 50,000 has a median age of thirty-eight, and about forty-two percent of residents have achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher. In large part, such a well-educated population is due to Olympia being a state government community with many positions requiring post-secondary education. It also is home to well-respected institutions such as the Evergreen State College, Saint Martin’s University in Lacey and the South Puget Sound Community College.

“Access to these respected higher education institutions offers a skilled and educated workforce that not only supports the demands of state government but the workforce needs of Olympia’s private sector employers,” comments Sunde.

The median house price is around $258,000 which is significantly more affordable than those in Portland or Seattle. Housing, however, is becoming more costly in Olympia and the surrounding cities, as demand rises throughout the region. “Our strategy is to support a variety of housing choices that offer a range of affordability options for Olympia residents.” Stahley notes that the cost of living in Olympia is much lower than either Seattle or Portland.

To appeal to a broader range of homeowners, developers have recently built 299 new market-rate units in the downtown core, with another 440 proposed units in the pipeline over the next two years.

Olympia’s quality schools and relatively low cost of living are part of the City’s allure. With approximately 20,000 new residents anticipated in Olympia over the next 15 years, the demand for healthcare services is expected to grow. Olympia is known as a “hub” for healthcare, serving Thurston county and the entire region. It is home to Capital Medical Center, a privately-owned hospital, which is currently undergoing a 9,950-square-foot expansion, adding five new surgical suites. Providence St. Peter Hospital is the second-largest hospital in the State of Washington and the largest private employer next to the state government.

“We are a draw for higher-skilled workers that support the demand for doctors, nurses and other health care related skills,” says Sunde. Olympia ranks high on the “creativity scale” – right up there with Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Boulder, Portland and Austin. These communities all offer a progressive culture and a vibrant arts, entertainment and music scene.

Tourist attractions such as the Hands On Children’s Museum, the Olympia Farmers Market, Capitol Campus and Percival Landing make the area popular with visitors year-round. Tourism is a key economic driver, and Olympia has seen a 6.6 percent increase in visitor tourism over the past year, for a total impact of $283 million.

Olympia is taking a strategic approach to plan for projected growth in the coming years. “And for us, it appears to be this incredible interest in downtown and urban living that’s emerged over the last two or three years here,” says Stahley. “We’ve seen a tremendous amount of interest and investment in our downtown, and we are working hard to set the table so that can continue.”

Among Olympia’s many recent initiatives is the revitalization of its historic downtown area and its wide range of shops, restaurants and businesses. The city center is appealing to people with a broad spectrum of ages and interests and has been buoyed by over $180 million in recent public and private investments.

One of the more recent downtown businesses is CopsForHire, a unique online marketplace for anyone requiring off-duty, commissioned law officers. The web-based application is a fully-automated, off-duty management solution that directly connects highly-trained law enforcement officers with customers who need them. This innovative startup is, in its own words, in the process of transforming a multi-billion-dollar marketplace.

“A technology company like this could set up anywhere, but they chose Olympia because of its great quality of life,” said Sunde. “We just need to figure out how to attract technology as an industry and tap the workforce talent needed to support it. Creating a vibrant downtown with the kind of amenities to draw millennials and tech talent, is part of our challenge.”

Mud Bay, a company that recently moved their administrative headquarters to downtown, started in a tiny farm store in 1988 and soon focused on providing the healthiest food available for cats and dogs. It was enormously successful and now has over forty locations across southwest Washington and Oregon. The company name, Mud Bay, pays tribute to one of the three southernmost arms of Puget Sound.

Olympia’s downtown is also home to numerous unique shops, such as 222 Market, a European-style open marketplace that recently opened its doors. The market unites local food producers and artisan businesses and has become a downtown anchor and place where locals and tourists alike can meet and chat in a warm, friendly atmosphere while enjoying quality products.

Olympia’s downtown is home to many other quaint businesses, such as the Little General Food Shop – which sells a selection of vegan and gluten-free foods and alcohol. Another beloved store, Captain Little, carries a broad selection of books, toys and other items for children. From retail shops to bars, restaurants, galleries and entertainment, downtown Olympia is truly the region’s heart of downtown.

Goals identified early in Olympia’s downtown strategy ranged from fostering a vibrant and diverse economic center to preserving the downtown character, creating a family-friendly atmosphere, expanding bicycle routes and embracing the area’s waterfront and natural setting. The community also realized its need to address homelessness and street dependency while including residential opportunities.

The city seeks to transform street segments to enhance the pedestrian experience, incorporate public art and directional signs and other elements, while encouraging private investment that will support retail development. It has also developed a comprehensive housing strategy to identify affordability needs and goals and established incentives to retain existing affordable housing while promoting more.

Initiatives range from upgrading the streetscape and encouraging more residents in order to improve identity and perception as well as connecting to other communities and economic development efforts and actively promoting tourism.

Olympia aims to not only attract investments, activity and people as it identifies key areas and opportunities for growth and improvement but to see retail opportunities grow. Approximately one thousand downtown businesses employ almost ten thousand people. Forty percent of the city’s downtown businesses are in the retail sector, which encompasses restaurants and coffee shops, bakeries and bars, personal services, art and antiques, books, convenience stores and much more.

The City anticipates that there will be 100,000 new residents to the region by the year 2030 with 5,000 of those living in the downtown core. The need for a downtown strategy has become more important than ever and includes plans to expand its urban environment to attract investment and set the stage for planning efforts for the next six years.

“While undergoing this planning process, we have experienced significant private investment, unlike what we have seen in the past decade,” states Sunde. “I’ve heard several folks talk about the current revitalization as a sort of renaissance. The momentum is great but we have many challenges and opportunities ahead that will require stewarding our assets, protecting our environmental attributes and serving the growing social needs of our community.”



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