Located between the major metro markets of the Seattle-Tacoma area and Portland, Thurston County is home to a growing and diverse economy that is known for its entrepreneurial and business startup spirit.

The county’s geographic location, coupled with its lower cost of living compared with Pierce and King counties to the north, has helped fuel its growth. However, just as impactful are the programs in place at the Thurston Economic Development Council’s Center for Business & Innovation (CB&I) that are geared specifically toward helping emerging companies thrive.

“There is an ecosystem here for entrepreneurs, and it’s an ecosystem for business startups. What we have tried to do, as a council, as an organization, is we try to create a backdrop for them to get access to capital,” said Michael Cade, executive director of the EDC. “We have a local lending network that we’ve created, an investment network. There are a couple of micro-loans that are active, and then there are strong relationships and the support of local government that would support that business startup or business incubation.”

Enter the Thurston Investment Network (ThINk), a membership-based network of local investors. If you’ve ever watched the popular TV show Shark Tank, you get the idea. ThINk is a matchmaking service of sorts, whereby local investors have an opportunity to connect with local business owners who need capital. Since ThINk’s launch in 2017, members have invested in five local businesses — including Olympia startup Trxstle and Lacey-based Off Planet Research — for a total of more than $300,000.

Pictured are fermenters at the Craft Brewing and Distilling Center in Tumwater, which includes an education component developed by South Puget Sound Community College (SPSCC).

Another innovative resource for prospective business owners (and lovers of craft brewing) is the Craft Brewing and Distilling Center in Tumwater, which includes an education component developed by South Puget Sound Community College (SPSCC). The Craft Brewing & Distillery program at SPSCC is the first of its kind in the nation. Students in the program work alongside experienced local brewers, distillers, and cider makers to learn what it takes to be a part of the complete program are then prepared to open their own craft brewing operations.

“That is attached to the agriculture (of Thurston County). … You can grow hops and you can grow barley in this market, in this region, in this environment. You can do specialty hops and specialty grains, and now we’re starting to get specialty growers in Thurston and Lewis counties to attach themselves to the market,” said Cade.

Agriculture is an important component of Thurston County’s economy. The most recent Census of Agriculture, taken in 2017, revealed that 1,200 farms operated in the county, and the total value of all agricultural products sold was more than $176 million.

While entrepreneurs and innovative startups are breathing new life into Thurston County, the impacts of state government, health care, warehouse distribution, manufacturing for overseas and out-of-region markets, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) on the county’s economy are not to be overlooked. “Our economy actually is pretty diverse. It really is,” Cade said.

Another attractive draw is the new Talking Cedar in Grand Mound, a 35,000-square-foot distillery-brewery-restaurant that is owned by the Chehalis Tribe and partners with Heritage Distilling Co.

Heritage Distilling marks the first tribal-owned distillery in the United States, and the first distillery allowed on indigenous land since 1834, due to the repeal of an Andrew Jackson-era statute that prohibited such operations on indigenous lands. The Chehalis Indian Tribe and Heritage Distilling joined forces to lobby Congress in 2018 to repeal the ban on distilleries on tribal land.

Heritage Distilling was slated to open this summer as a distillery and tasting room but, with the COVID-19 outbreak and the local and national need for hand sanitizer, Heritage Distilling Co. and the Chehalis Tribe quickly changed course and retrofitted the distillery equipment to produce hand sanitizer. In July, Heritage announced that it is now open to the public with COVID-19 protocols in place.

Great Wolf Lodge, a resort and indoor water park, also is located in Grand Mound, in addition to many other attractions.

“I’ve been here (in Thurston County) since 2004, and Grand Mound was really nothing more than kind of a two-lane interchange, but now it is a major interchange and destination,” Cade said.

So, if Thurston County conjures in your mind only images of state government or distribution facilities for retailers like Target and Whole Foods, think again. The county is home to a diverse and growing economy thanks, in large part, to its strong entrepreneurial spirit.

“If you’re thinking about starting a business and you want someplace where it is kind of a soft landing and it’s not so competitive, (and) an easy way to get a high-quality workforce, this is a great spot for it,” said Cade. “There’s a real entrepreneurial ecosystem here that supports it.”