State capital. Diverse. Home to The Evergreen State College.
These are some common descriptors that first come to mind when people think of Olympia. With the city’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, you now can add “resilient” to the short list.
As it did to so many communities throughout the country, the pandemic dealt many local businesses and their employees economic and personal blows. In the wake of such adversity, Olympia is proving the power of its diversification and its commitment to transformation and innovation.
“Yes; it’s a pandemic environment that we’re dealing with, but we are starting to see some positive movement. Our economic index has kind of bottomed out, and it is now moving in the upward fashion,” said Michael Cade, executive director of the Thurston Economic Development Council. “And we have structures in place for an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is really strong. And then we still have two very strong economic levelers in the South Puget Sound market, and that is Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Washington state government — those are very significant economic drivers and suppliers of income streams and wages.”
Added Cade, “What’s next is not a return back to normalcy, but a return back to the notion that we can continue our road of economic development and diversity. We’ll do it, and we’re starting to see it.”
As those people familiar with Olympia are aware, the city in recent years has been reinvesting in its downtown area, eager to usher in a new era of growth. Take, for instance, the Hands On Children’s Museum on Olympia’s East Bay waterfront; the artisanal market known as 222 Market; several mixed-use projects, like Views on 5th; and the growth of Naked Prosthetics, a cutting-edge prosthetic manufacturer, to name a few.
Today, the momentum continues to gain steam.
“We are still seeing a very strong and continued investment into our downtown. … There are numerous projects still under construction, or new projects under construction right now in downtown and many more in the pipeline for development,” said Mike Reid, economic development director for the City of Olympia.
For example, said Reid, in downtown Olympia, there are 119 residential units under construction and, within the last several months, 320 units have been occupied. In addition, there are 187 new residential units in permit review, and 200 units in the pre-application phase.
There’s also the West Bay Yards development project, which still is in the pre-application phase, Reid said. The West Bay Development Group is looking to develop a five-building mixed-use project on West Bay Drive in Olympia that would include more than 470 units of rental housing and 20,000 square feet of commercial space. This $200 million investment would be constructed in three phases and would include new restaurant and retail opportunities.
Furthermore, smaller downtown merchants are benefiting from the support of local residents and city officials. One prime example: Thurston Strong.
The Thurston Regional Economic Recovery Task Force, represented by a number of partners, including the City of Olympia and the neighboring cities of Tumwater and Lacey, last year developed and coordinated a multifaceted response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This initiative became known as Thurston Strong.
To help local businesses and impacted workers, Thurston Strong shares information on the thurstonstrong.org site and via email updates to subscribers.
“We built Thurston Strong, which is our local economic response to this issue. So thurstonstrong.org was sort of a clearinghouse that we directed everybody to get assistance. We put out about $10 million worth of grants to businesses. We targeted those grants to different sectors,” Reid said.
The initiative also includes the hosting of a business resource hotline to help local businesses apply for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, locate lenders, successfully operate in a remote work environment, and more.
For some local businesses, the creation of Thurston Strong has proved significant.
“What we have seen is that Olympia is the 25th-largest city in Washington state, and we got the 11th-most PPP loans in the state. We hit pretty high above our average, and I really think that was related to this group effort,” Reid said.
Meanwhile, to help local restaurants, in particular, the City has worked with restaurant owners to help them find ways to successfully utilize city sidewalks for dining and bring more of their business outdoors. Obviously, the initial goal was to help restaurants stay afloat while keeping their customers and employees safe. The results, however, delivered a pleasant surprise.
“This was done originally to help adapt (to COVID-19 safety guidelines), and I think what we’ve discovered is that the sidewalk activation that it brings, the vibrancy that it brings, to have that almost bistro-style sidewalk where people are outside eating — it really does something to downtown,” Reid said. “I think that we’re going to want to find a way to continue to support this sort of activated sidewalk.”
That’s why it comes as little surprise that, per a study from personal finance website WalletHub, Olympia recently ranked among the top 10 best state capitals in the country. This evidence proves that Olympia is making strides on its commitment to transformation and innovation.