What was once the eyesore neighborhood between downtown Tacoma and the city’s hospital district, Hilltop has become distinctively hip in the past couple of years.

The latest development? The opening of four small, local businesses in the renovated, 5,000-square-foot Spaceworks building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The site was as much a draw for its funky, revamped look as its prime real estate: across the street from long-time neighborhood icon Johnson Candy Company, which has quietly thrived there for nearly a century, and next to the trendy Hilltop Kitchen restaurant, which opened last year.

“Business right now is great,” said Tshirt Men co-owner Willie Combs, whose company opened there in April after a year of operations out of his living room. “Because of the retail location, both with our general customers and the walk-in traffic, it’s definitely increased.”

Along with Tshirt Men’s storefront, the site now hosts a variety of companies spawned by creative ideas and talent, including the Concrete Market 800-square-foot showroom, gallery and retail space for commercial and residential artisan concrete furnishings and designs. At Spun Clay Arts Studio & Gallery, customers create and purchase pottery that’s both artistic and functional. DubCity Studios (a.k.a. Monopoly Entertainment) is an entertainment production and rehearsal space that also provides promotional and marketing advice for those in the industry. 

Duncan Sousag, who also opened his Concrete Market/Sound Concrete Countertops business at Spaceworks Hilltop in April, had an established, home-based concrete kitchen and outdoor countertop, accents and furnishings business before entering the program. What he realized he needed was a storefront for selling his retail items, as well as a space that could function as a showroom for potential clients to visit.

“I immediately recognized the potential of the space I was offered, and I had hope that I had something to offer the neighborhood and the community,” he said. “Beyond that, I was entirely passionate about contributing to the revival of a neighborhood, and have the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with being a catalyst in that resurgence.”

Sousag is thrilled that he trusted Spaceworks’ vision, and said that the program has delivered far beyond what he ever expected.

“The support of the local community and the collaborations among local artists and  businesses truly make Tacoma a unique place,” he explained. “Spaceworks does more to market the businesses that filter through the program than the businesses do; they are unbelievably terrific at that promotion.” 

And this isn’t the first time Spaceworks has sparked a successful neighborhood business site that’s up ticked the economy and customer traffic in a once-defunct building. Launched in 2010 via a partnership between City of Tacoma and Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, the program aims to turn vacant spaces and storefronts around Tacoma into colorful retail hubs for area small business owners, local companies seeking training space, nonprofit organizations, community groups and artists.

The tactic is to choose the best prospective applicants for a particular site, based on their business plan, and lease the space at just $1 for the first six months while the owners participate in business training and counseling from the Chamber. The goal? To both kick-start economic revitalization wherever it’s dragging and help entrepreneurs see their visions come to life in a way profitable enough that they’ll be able to sign another six-month or longer lease at regular rates.

So far, it’s working. With the Hilltop building, Spaceworks has created 31 new sites for business and art in greater Tacoma, working with more than 150 entrepreneurs and artists in the process. In addition, on the short list to open at program-sponsored spaces are already thriving Tacoma companies that have opened recently, such as the botanical emporium and arts studio Moss & Mineral, and longboard/skateboard shop Grit City Grindhouse. Other Spaceworks projects include the artist-inspired displays that now fill windows of the former Woolworth Building in downtown Tacoma, and upcoming openings for several sites in the renovated former city post office and U.S. Courthouse on A Street.

According to Heather Joy of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, who is also the manager of Spaceworks projects, the success rate for signing an ongoing lease is at 75 percent. Sousag has already signed his one-year deal for Hilltop, and Combs and the others are in the process. Not only this, but more than 20 additional businesses ranging from graphic design firms to a comic book shop to a film-maker are currently approved for the program and on the wait-list for space.

“The goal is to activate vacant storefronts,” she said, “and to give opportunities to creative people to start a business or exhibit their artwork.”

The Hilltop project began when Spaceworks partnered with property owner Paul Okner, of Fremont Property Group LLC. In January, the two parties signed the lease; next, they tagged Tshirt Men and the other three businesses to fill the space. The grand opening came just two weeks ago, and customer activity at all sites is better than ever.

“I realized the neighborhood had a lot of potential and character,” Okner said. “(I like) its location, the proximity to downtown; it was a great vibe, a good feeling.”

Combs, whose main clientele were originally schools and other small businesses like restaurants, said that both the visibility of the site and walk-in traffic have been a boon to Tshirt Men’s bottom line.

“Spaceworks was a good fit because we didn’t have the capital to get a spot, so having the opportunity to go out and get a local retail business site instead of operating out of our home has been great,” he said. “And we’re glad to be part of this rejuvenation of the neighborhood.”

Added Okner, “I’m extremely optimistic about this project.”

Note: Applications for Spaceworks business and artist sites are submitted annually; the next acceptance period is in October. See details on the web at spaceworkstacoma.com/apply/apply-to-creative-enterprises.