Once an agricultural community, Kent has over the decades transformed into an industrial center rich in manufacturing and warehousing. And it’s what is happening inside those warehouses that has helped make the city so unique. In fact, a lot of the city’s happenings are out of this world — literally.

“[Kent] is among the 10 most diverse cities in America. It is rapidly urbanizing and has been for some time. … We do have a very large industrial area, it’s true, but I think the thing that people don’t recognize as they’re driving on I-5 and they see all of those little white boxes is what is going on inside of them is quite amazing and diverse,” Bill Ellis, chief economic development officer for Kent, told South Sound Business.

The Kent Industrial Valley is home to more than 10,000 businesses and 49,000 manufacturing jobs — 22,000 of which are in the aero/outer-space industry.

Examples of manufacturing include Kent-based Omax, which designs and manufactures abrasive waterjet systems; Salumi, a purveyor of smoked and cured meats, which has a production facility in Kent; and Starbucks, which has its original roasting plant in Kent (one of only five in the world). And the list goes on.

There also is, of course, aerospace firm Blue Origin, which was founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Earlier this year, Blue Origin celebrated the opening of its new giant tentlike headquarters building, complete with an on-site research and development facility.

Dubbed the O’Neill Building, after physicist and visionary Gerard O’Neill, the facility is where engineering, manufacturing, and business teams “challenge the impossible every day,” according to Blue Origin’s website.

Jeff Bezos presents a prototype of Blue Origin’s Moon Lander. Courtesy of Blue Origin.

“For those of you that are Washington state residents, what is exciting is we’re going to be doing all this work from a headquarters based here in Kent. It’s a remarkable statement to say that we’re going to fly humans to space, we’re going to build and design large engines and a large orbital rocket, and we’re going to go back to the moon — all through work centered here,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said during the structure’s ribbon-cutting event in January.

But, as anyone familiar with Kent’s history is well aware, the city is no stranger to outer space. More than 50 years ago, the first major industry to move to Kent was the Boeing Aerospace Center and, in 1970, the Lunar Rover Vehicle (LRV) was conceived and built in Kent.

To help preserve its history of lunar exploration, the city and the Kent Downtown Partnership in King County last year received historic landmark designation for the LRVs that were built in Kent at the Boeing Space Center and used in Apollo Missions 15, 16, and 17 from 1971-72. These vessels, which remain untouched on the moon today, made it possible for six scientist astronauts to safely explore the moon’s landscape and carry a payload of scientific samples of the lunar terrain.

The city is now pursuing recognition at the state level. To date, only California and New Mexico have lunar objects in their state historic registers.

“This is pretty significant history, and [the designation] reminds people of the great work that has been going on here in the Kent Valley for so many years,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph told South Sound Business.

Interior of the Ethos Apartments. Courtesy of City of Kent.

But it’s important to remember that Kent’s story isn’t all about manufacturing, warehousing, and space exploration. The city has been rapidly urbanizing and, according to a recent study by personal finance website WalletHub, Kent ranked No. 10 among the most culturally diverse cities in the United States. To keep pace with change, complement new development, and better connect residents and businesses, the city is engaged in a multiphase initiative to redesign Meeker Street. Enter the “Meet Me on Meeker” project.

Named for Ezra Meeker, an early pioneer of Kent, Meeker Street is the historic route into and out of Kent’s downtown. It’s the unofficial Main Street of Kent.

“That project is in multiple phases, but it’s things like streetscapes, widening the sidewalks so they’re more pedestrian-friendly … street lighting, street trees. … That project, when it is complete, will take those design standards all the way from the west side of the valley right down in through historical downtown. There are several sections of it that are already built out and sections that are in all different phases as things redevelop,” Ralph said. More specifically, improvements include:

  • Wider sidewalks and additional safe street crossings;
  • Pedestrian-scale lighting;
  • Curb bulb-outs (for pedestrians waiting at intersections);
  • Street trees and landscaping;
  • Separated, buffered bike path (connecting Green River and Interurban trails); and
  • Benches, bike racks, and other street furniture.

Another significant draw to Meeker Street is the new Ethos mixed-use community near the Riverbend Golf Course on West Meeker Street. Ethos encompasses 492 residential units and approximately 12,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space.

“(Ethos) is a fabulous project located right on the Green River with a beautiful Mount Rainier view, and then we have a second similar project going in at Meeker and 64th. So we’re starting to see a transition to filling what used to be a gap in the high-end housing market here in Kent,” Ralph said.

Added Ellis, “(Meet Me on Meeker) was another idea reflecting Kent’s growing position within the region as the third-largest city in King County but also this huge hub of tech talent, and then we needed a diversity of housing types for the new people moving into Kent, and then we needed a new diversity of both work/live options and lifestyle options in the community.”

Continued Ellis, “So, we’ve been investing heavily in that and investing in our planning for that future that is starting to materialize as you drive around Kent, whether you look at the brand new headquarters of Blue Origin, or at the new apartment complexes at Ethos, or you are someday in the near future riding your bicycle along the promenade of ‘Meet Me on Meeker’ between the Sounder station and those parks that exist along the Green River, or some of the shopping destinations in between.”