The Capitol building has long loomed large in Olympia, but in its shadow lies a city on the rise. Fueled by an increasingly diversified economy and a dynamic arts and culture scene, Olympia is undergoing significant change.

“I’ve been in my job for 15 years here at the (Thurston) Economic Development Council, and during that time Olympia really has become a destination city,” said Executive Director Michael Cade. “There’s been a recognition of the vibrancy that is Olympia.”

The area, however, is no stranger to transformation and development. As noted on the city’s website, Olympia, whose name was inspired by the view of the Olympic Mountains, was originally mapped out in 1850. Nearly 40 years later, when Washington became a state with Olympia as its capital, the area began to bustle with the emergence of a streetcar line for transportation, a new hotel for visitors, an opera house for entertainment, and a city water system.

Over the years, the area continued to grow and eventually became a lumber-processing hub. Smokestacks lined the waterfront. This lasted until the 1960s, when plywood mills and the smokestacks began falling by the wayside.

In 1927, residents and government officials celebrated the completion of the Legislative Building.

In the 1950s, a crucial transportation route for Olympia and the Puget Sound region came to fruition with the construction of Interstate 5 through Olympia and the nearby areas of Tumwater and Lacey.

Later, the state of Washington passed legislation to create a new four-year college in southwestern Washington — Olympia’s The Evergreen State College — ushering in yet another era when it welcomed its first class in 1971, and it has since changed and enlivened the city’s cultural and social climate.

But with growth also come growing pains. “If you look back on the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, as more suburbs grew, you saw some of these downtowns struggle, and I don’t think Olympia was unique in that. We did see sort of a change. When I-5 came, we lost a lot of the traffic through downtown. We saw people head toward the more suburban areas,” said Mike Reid, Olympia’s director of Economic Development.

Today, the city is reinvesting in its downtown area and is eager to usher in a new era of growth.

“We have more investment going on in our downtown core right now than we’ve probably had in the previous 15 years combined,” said Reid. “We will have more market-rate housing brought on this year than any year previously. I think there’s about 400 market-rate units being built, resident apartment units. We have a condo project as well. It is just very exciting that we’re seeing that re-emergence. All the while, we are really growing and embracing that arts and cultural hub.”

Hands On Childrens Museum

Photo Courtesy Hands on Children’s Museum

One of the most significant projects and catalysts for Olympia’s economic development in recent years is the Hands On Children’s Museum on Olympia’s East Bay waterfront.

Hands On was formed in 1987 as a fledgling startup and outgrew its space several times before moving to its permanent home on the East Bay in the fall of 2012. The 28,000-square-foot facility accommodates more than 300,000 visitors annually.

“(The Children’s Museum) has had a huge impact in bringing family and family activities into our downtown. I think that, in a lot of ways, was one of the initial actions that caused a re-emergence in investing in our downtown,” said Reid. “I think that the Children’s Museum was one of the first dominoes to fall.”

More recent projects, said Reid, include Annie’s Artists Flats. The new 48-unit apartment building opened in October and included a companion project, Annie’s Artist Studios. Annie’s Artist Studios transformed the Montgomery Ward building into an artists’ space with studios, an open gallery space, and 18 residential units with common areas.

And about two years ago, a historical building that was originally the home of Olympia’s Packard Car Dealership was transformed into an artisanal market known as 222 Market.

“And on the horizon, there are three really signature projects that are either under construction or will shortly be under construction,” said Reid, referring to the new mixed-use projects known as Views on 5th, the Laurana (previously called Dockside Flats), and Westman Mill.

Continued Reid: “Those three projects probably constitute close to $60 million in private investment in downtown Olympia — just those three projects alone … My guess is in the 2018/2019 cycle, we’ll see $150 million of private investment contemplated for downtown Olympia.”

It also is important to note the positive impact that the area’s healthcare sector has had on the local economy. Home to both Capital Medical Center and Providence St. Peter Hospital, Olympia has also become a growing regional medical center hub.

“Healthcare in Thurston County is an economic driver in the sense that it brings in dollars into the community,” said Cade. “Individuals come to Olympia to patronize and use the services of the healthcare (providers) in Thurston County, and those are based primarily in Olympia.”


Sources: City of Olympia, Thurston Regional Planning Council, U.S. Census Bureau;, Zillow