Our staff at South Sound Business never miss an opportunity to learn more about the communities we cover. This year, our reporters, editors, photographers, and designers have loaded into buses to visit the Port of Tacoma and Thurston County, and met with business and economic development leaders to better understand what drives the South Sound economy. Last week, we had the pleasure of learning more about the city of Kent. Here are three notable takeaways:
A Rocket-Fueled Economy
Clearly, city officials are over the moon over Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’ decision to choose Kent to headquarter Blue Origin, the Bezos-backed space technology company leading the charge in the development of reusable rockets. The tech mogul owns several dozen acres of property in the city’s industrial valley.
Four years ago, Blue Origin employed approximately 300 people, according to William Ellis, the city’s chief economic development officer. Today, the company’s payroll includes nearly 1,500 people, accounting for half of the 2,900 direct jobs in Washington state’s space industry. It is Kent’s largest employer.
“We have a leadership position in the space industry that we want to grow, and to see continue,” said Ellis during a breakfast meeting with Kent Mayor Dana Ralph at Wild Wheat Bakery downtown.
It’s not the first time this city’s economy has been boosted by space technology. Fifty years ago, engineers at a Boeing facility in Kent helped develop the Lunar Rover, the so-called “moon buggy” that transported astronauts along the surface of the moon.
“We’ve got some pretty cool space legacy here,” said Ralph, who was born and raised in Kent, and recalled a time when the city’s population capped out at 30,000 people. Today, Kent’s population is about 130,000. Kent is the third-largest city in King County, and the sixth-largest city in the state.
When you think of Kent’s industrial valley, which stretches from approximately South Seattle down to Sumner, you likely think of the city’s warehouses, manufacturing facilities, and industrial parks. It makes sense, considering Kent is situated between the Port of Tacoma, Port of Seattle, and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and is served by State Route 167 and Interstate 5, as well as rail lines.
But Ellis said this industry sector is doing more than just manufacturing parts and widgets on static assembly lines. “We are developing the highest level of manufacturing technology,” he said.
Case in point: Omax Corporation. The company, which produces waterjet cutting machines, was established in Kent some 25 years ago. Over the years, it has grown to include 400 employees who occupy four buildings in its vast campus in the industrial valley.
What is waterjet technology?
Instead of using saws, lasers, or other kinds of cutting equipment, Omax’s machines use a blend of water and garnet that moves through a tiny cutting head and nozzle at high-pressure to cut almost any kind of material.
According to Julene Bailie, Omax’s technical training manager, the company manufactures more than 400 machines annually. Those machines are shipped to a global customer base that uses the equipment to create large I-beams for construction projects, carbon fiber prosthetic limbs, ornamental gates on custom-made homes, parts for automated robot systems, production sets for television shows, and even to cut designs on cheesecakes.
Omax’s customers have proved loyal, Bailie noted, and that has helped it expand over the years.
“Twenty to 25 percent of our customer base owns multiple Omax machines,” she said. “That 20 to 25 percent owns 40 percent of the total number of Omax machines in the world.”
Bites and Beer
It’s not all manufacturing and space engineering in Kent.
Two entirely different businesses also caught our attention during our tour of Kent.
First, Asadero Sinaloa offers cuisine of Northern Mexico that focuses largely on smoky, savory, high-quality steak, carne asada, Wagyu beef, and bone marrow. A family-owned operation led by chef and owner David Orozco, Asadero Sinaloa started as a food stand in 2014, and has since grown to include two sit-down restaurants in Kent and Ballard. And more expansion is in the works, Orozco said.
Second, Airways Brewing, which was opened by Alex and Dione Dittmar in 2010, has grown from a 600-square-foot operation that brewed one keg at a time, to a company that operates a bistro and beer garden downtown, and a 6,000-square-foot tap room and brewery in the Pacific Business Park.
“People always ask, ‘Where did ‘Airways’ Brewing come from,” explained Dione Dittmar during a tour of the brewery and tap room, which is decorated with artifacts that evoke the brewery’s name: an old spiral staircase and nose cone from Boeing 747 airplanes. “My husband’s two big passions in life (are) airplanes and beer. He kind of put the two things together and came up with Airways Brewing.”
In a nod to Blue Origin, which is located around the corner from the brewery and tap room, the company recently brewed a new batch of beer: Space Church IPA. According to Dione, a group of Blue Origin employees approached Airways Brewery about making the unique beer.
“When they have to work on Sundays, they call it Space Church,” Dione explained. “It’s not officially associated with Blue Origin in any way, but their (employees) requested it and came up with the idea.”