Snohomish County on the Rise

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Snohomish County, which sweeps across the region north of Seattle from the water-kissed shores of Puget Sound to the craggy slopes of the Cascade Mountains, has seen its economy transformed in recent decades from one based on farming, logging and paper to one centered on aerospace and national defense.

Now, thanks to a burgeoning, well-heeled population, a diversifying manufacturing sector, and reenergized retail and entertainment destinations, the county is developing its own regional identity, increasingly independent of the powerful magnetic pull of Seattle and the towering presence of the Boeing Company and the U.S. Navy. To top it off, the county airport at Paine Field could soon begin offering commercial airline service, helping to attract even more new businesses to the region.

“There is a real sense of optimism,” says Troy McClelland, CEO of Economic Alliance Snohomish County, a consortium of the Everett Area Chamber of Commerce, the South Snohomish County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Council of Snohomish County. “We are a vitally separate entity that’s fueling the state’s future.”

It is a far cry from how things looked just a few years ago. In the recent recession, a collapse in the housing, banking and construction sectors hit the region particularly hard, pushing unemployment to 10.6 percent in 2010. Nearly half of the county’s independent banks disappeared, including Everett’s Frontier Bank and City Bank of Lynnwood. Then, when it looked as if things couldn’t get any worse, Kimberly-Clark Corporation announced in 2011 the shuttering of its Everett paper pulp plant, a move that led to the loss of as many as 900 jobs.

But Snohomish County is rising again, with its unemployment rate now down to 6.7 percent and its banks much healthier. Total population reached about 722,000 last year, up from 606,000 in 2000. By 2025, the number of county residents is expected to surpass 900,000.

Boeing’s Everett plant remains the backbone of the Snohomish County economy, and its presence has played a strong role in the county’s recent recovery. More than half of the 11,000 direct and indirect jobs the aerospace giant created in Washington state in 2011 were in Snohomish County. And the company continues to create at least 5,000 direct aerospace jobs a year, according to Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon. Strong sales of the Boeing 777 keep assembly lines humming, and expectations are high for increased production of the 787 Dreamliner in Everett, irrespective of its nagging assembly and safety issues. Also, Everett expects to reap a substantial number of the 11,000 jobs that are anticipated from Boeing’s success in winning an Air Force contract to supply a new-generation air tanker.

“The fact that our state is such an enormous player [in aerospace] is good news,” says McClelland. Those high-paying manufacturing jobs, he adds, have helped boost median personal income in the county to $62,000, up by $10,000 in the past decade and among the strongest increases in the United States.

Similarly, Naval Station Everett has been a mainstay of the local economy for a generation, with about 6,000 sailors and civilians assigned to commands there and creating a sprawling growth footprint among suburban communities. But the county’s economy has grown more complex and diversified in recent years, providing what County Executive Reardon calls “opportunities for personal and professional growth.”

Take manufacturing, which extends far beyond aerospace to include biotech firms like CMC Biologics and Philips, instrumentation companies like Fluke Corporation and Intermec, heavy machinery companies like Advanced Rail Concepts and exciting green startups like Microgreen Polymers.

The large pool of higher-income households is supporting broader, more diverse sectors in business services, retail, hospitality and entertainment. Marysville, the second-largest city in Snohomish County, has added restaurants, retailers, auto dealers and, more recently, a new hotel and clinic, says Mayor Jon Nehring. The city now has a population of 60,000, 10 times its size just 20 years ago. It has set aside 1,000 acres for a master planned site where it hopes to attract manufacturers. “We are a bedroom community now,” says Nehring. “We need to attract manufacturing to provide jobs that keep people here.”

Still, Nehring is pleased that many Marysville residents don’t have to leave the county for most of their needs. With the Comcast Arena at Everett, the retail center in Lynnwood and the Tulalip Tribe’s popular outlet mall and casino—all along the Interstate 5 corridor—Nehring says, “Snohomish County has become a huge entertainment center. Our citizens don’t have to go outside Snohomish County to get entertainment. In fact, we have people coming here.”

To make Everett an even more attractive destination, the Port of Everett plans to spend roughly $90 million in the next five years to redevelop Everett’s industrial waterfront. It will include a new marina for boating and commercial shipping, mixed-use housing and a “village heart” that features hotels, restaurants, retail shops and community spaces. Environmental cleanup in the area has already started and the port anticipates development of parts of the waterfront within the next 18 months.

Snohomish County has also developed a unified economic plan and has become more strategic about promoting its interests with state government in Olympia. The Economic Alliance Snohomish County put forward a plan last year that calls for training more workers for manufacturing and aerospace (see page 30), improving the overloaded roadway infrastructure with new construction and attracting new businesses to the region.

One development that could play a significant role in helping draw new business is the potential emergence of Paine Field in Everett as a regional airport. Alaska Air has asked for permission to schedule regular flights from Paine Field to Maui, Honolulu, Portland and Las Vegas starting next year. If the county builds a terminal at Paine Field and those flights begin, other airlines are likely to follow.

Local executives say Paine Field could be a significant boost to the region. “I recall one day when a CEO and his relocation team were scheduled to meet me at a building in Everett,” recalls Tom Hoban, CEO of the Coast Group of Companies, an Everett-based commercial real estate sales, leasing, management and investment firm. “They flew into Sea-Tac and it took them three hours to get here in midday traffic.” Having a more convenient airport, says Hoban, would make Snohomish County a far more desirable place in which to operate a business.

Although some communities, including Mukilteo, are opposed to commercial aviation at Paine Field, with the Federal Aviation Administration threatening to cut off millions of dollars in subsidies to Paine Field if the county does not allow such flights, and with three good-sized runways at the airfield because it is used by Boeing, it seems likely that Paine Field will ultimately emerge as an important alternative to SeaTac Airport for the 1.4 million residents who live within a 45-minute drive of Paine Field.

That scenario could take some time to work out. But in the short term, real estate, which contributed to the sharp economic downturn in the recent recession, could soon contribute to economic growth. Glenn Crellin, a researcher with the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington, says real estate in Snohomish County was stronger in 2012 than the market statewide. Sales of single-family homes, for example, rose 15 percent last year. Median prices were up 7 percent, compared to just 4.5 percent statewide.

Reardon credits “smart growth management” for that success. By keeping permitting and development costs low vis-à-vis surrounding counties, by not collecting impact fees until the end of a project and by holding property taxes the lowest of any county in the state, Reardon says Snohomish County has attracted more lower-cost commercial and residential construction.

With population and greater wealth comes increased demand for medical services. Providence, the region’s largest health care provider, recently completed the biggest investment in its 155-year history when it spent $580 million on a 680,000-square-foot medical tower in Everett. Providence is also building a new $22 million center in Monroe.

“From a business standpoint, it is keeping care local and being able to provide care as efficiently as possible to drive low costs,” says Preston Simmons, interim director of Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett.

By keeping things local with local manufacturing, a local airport and local entertainment, Snohomish may well be on its way to creating a thriving community with greater control over its own destiny.

 

TECH SUPPORT

One of Snohomish County’s most successful economic development efforts has been the promotion of workforce training. The county already has the state’s second-largest technical workforce, comprising 63,000 workers, second only to King County’s 250,000 technical workers. With manufacturers demanding even more skilled workers who possess a broader range of skills, the county has moved rapidly to upgrade its workforce.

Everett Community College added a composite manufacturing and maintenance program and Washington State University in Everett is building up its engineering program. Edmonds Community College teamed up with Snohomish County and Kent-based Aerospace Futures Alliance, an industry advocacy group, to build and fund a training center focused specifically on generating an educated workforce to fill family-wage jobs. The center opened in 2010 with 19 students in its first class. Now, with a mix of current high school graduates and adults looking for new careers, the program enrolls about 180 people a month and has graduated nearly 500 students. Its job placement success rate is 90 percent.

By training a strong technical workforce, says Economic Alliance CEO Troy McClelland, the county manufacturers will have access to the workers they need to broaden their portfolio beyond aerospace. “The aerospace parts providers don’t want to get locked into just one industry,” he notes. Many of the 200 or so aerospace suppliers in the region have already reduced their dependence on Boeing by serving other clients. And across the region in Arlington, Monroe and Bothell, vibrant manufacturing regions are popping up. — T.N.

 

HEALTHY SIGNS

The Bothell Biomedical Manufacturing Corridor may not have the catchiest name, but it has become a magnet for biotech and medical instrument companies. Whether they’re developing methods for diagnosing and treating diseases or researching and creating new products, this grouping of medical device manufacturers close to major research and educational institutions has given Snohomish County yet another important growth sector.

Last year, the medical devices sector in Snohomish County saw sales increase 18 percent from the year before, and Bothell’s Innovation Partnership Zone (IPZ) is now home to 22 percent of all the state’s biotech and biomedical companies. Designated in 2007, the IPZ involves putting university researchers close to private-sector partners to help develop prototypes, incubate startups and develop training programs, all while luring and keeping top talent.

Two of the biggest employers in the area are Philips and SonoSite. Philips came to the state in 1998 and has since acquired three companies here, moving its global sales and service operation to Bothell, where it employs 1,900, and manufactures ultrasound and automated external defibrillator devices that are shipped around the globe. SonoSite, launched in Bothell in 1998 with fewer than 50 employees, has become a worldwide ultrasound manufacturer that employs roughly 1,000 in Snohomish County.

The company, bought by Fuji Film in 2012, specializes in bedside and point-of-care ultrasound machines.“This is a really large growth area and the entire sector is buoyed by the strength of these two companies,” says Economic Alliance CEO Troy McClelland. “There are very favorable signals coming out of the medical device sector.” — T.N.

Making the Consumer Connection

Making the Consumer Connection

How three new companies are reinventing the shoe, the bicycle and the children’s play fort.
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Billy Price struggled nearly 20 years to find a better, easier way to put on his shoes. August Graube was convinced kids would love bigger, snappier building blocks. Kartik Ram wanted the bicycling public to help produce a sleeker, sexier electric bike.

By putting new twists on old products — using zippers to secure footwear, snap-together panels to build play forts, crowdsourcing to inform design — three of the newest consumer-product companies in the Puget Sound region are creating a buzz around ideas that, in one sense, are hardly new, while, in another, are revolutionary.

They are also creating their own playbooks, borrowing from successful retailers, high-tech firms and online businesses to forge their own paths. They’re building virtual teams and hiring people who possess the expertise they lack — be it in distribution, marketing or manufacturing. And they’re tapping alternative funding sources for startup capital, including crowdfunding and business competitions.

These entrepreneurs are not interested in being one-hit wonders and are working on additional products for their markets. Like many other inventors and entrepreneurs, they share the gift of optimism, a penchant for risk taking and the patience required to continually refine their ideas and products.

AN OPEN-AND-SHUT CASE FOR ZIPPER SHOES

Function and Fashion: Billy Footwear cofounder Billy Price, left, wants his line of zippered shoes
to be stylish enough to appeal to a wide audience. 

Paralyzed from the chest down in 1996 after breaking his neck in a three-story fall, Billy Price longed to put his on shoes by himself. It’s something he struggled with for years. He also wanted shoes more fashionable than the adaptive ones available on the market for people with spinal cord injuries. 

A project manager for the Federal Aviation Administration who lives in Seattle, Price kept thinking about making stylish shoes that could be worn not just by those with disabilities, but also by young children, older people and anyone else who might have difficulty with conventional footwear.

Price found a partner to bring his vision to life in late 2011 when he became reacquainted with Darin Donaldson, a childhood friend who, as luck would have it, had attended Port Townsend’s Shoe School and gone through the process of creating a woman’s boot. Price already had a shoe idea in mind: a riff on a slip-on shoe that he modified. With more tinkering, the pair created a shoe that incorporates a zipper that goes around the front of the shoe, allowing the upper portion to flip open to one side so the wearer can essentially step into the shoe and then zip the top closed.

Taking advantage of connections Donaldson created while developing his unsuccessful woman’s boot, they quickly developed a prototype. “It came back in very good quality and was functional, considering it was the first prototype we made,” says Donaldson, a serial entrepreneur. 

Price adds, “When that prototype came in and we showed it to people, they would just shake their heads in disbelief because Darin just nailed it.” 

The self-funded shoe company has seven styles for sale on its Billy Footwear website — billyfootwear.com — as well as at amazon.com. The shoes are made in China. The company has applied for a patent on its distinctive design.

Price and Donaldson still work full time at other jobs and are raising money to create more designs, add more sizes and increase inventory. They hope to introduce a more supportive but still fashionable line for older adults. Billy Footwear has already hired several employees to handle logistics and sales.

The company recently raised more than $32,000 through a successful Kickstarter effort, which augments personal funding Price has provided. Donaldson says the company plans a private offering later this year. In the meantime, Billy Footwear is hitting the road with an eye toward having its zipper shoes available in stores next year.

“I’ve been in a wheelchair for half of my life,” Price says, “and half my life, I couldn’t put on my own shoes. Now I can.”

Price also likes that his company’s creations don’t stigmatize the differently abled.

“This,” he says, “is truly a shoe that appeals to everyone.”

CULTIVATING A CHILD'S IMAGINATION IS A SNAP

"Luckily, Kids Love It": August Graube tried 165 prototypes before hitting on the right formula for Fort Boards.

Seeing how children loved building with giant Lincoln Logs gave August Graube the idea to create Fort Boards, a set of large, flat building panels he began selling late last year.

The former employee of Pacific Studio, a Seattle-based creator of exhibits, was working on a children’s exhibit for the new home of the Museum of History & Industry in 2012 when he saw how much fun children have building large structures. He knew kids would love a product that could allow them to build large forts — and anything else their imaginations might conjure — at home.

It took Graube three years and, by his count, 165 prototypes to arrive at a winning combination. He discarded six iterations of a huge Lincoln Logs-style product made of plywood; it cost too much and would have been dangerous. He then tried 60 versions of a smaller flat board made of extruded polypropylene, but it was too flimsy and didn’t work well. He liked the size of the smaller board but knew it had to be constructed of a different material, so he progressed through nearly 100 more iterations of a smaller flat panel made of injection-molded plastic, which he 3D printed.

The end product is a flat piece of plastic about the size of a sheet of paper. Each panel snaps easily to the next and is locked in place — either flat or at a variety of angles — by a snap-on hinge. Kids use the hinges and plastic pieces to build igloos, airplanes, castles and other shapes. Graube recently received a utility patent for Fort Boards, which also is trademarked. 

Like many inventors, Graube took a big risk, paying to build the final prototype without kid testing it because the upfront tooling costs forced him to jump-start production, which takes place in Indiana. “Luckily, kids love it,” Graube reports. “It’s intuitive, with only two interlocking parts, so it’s easy to learn.” 

Schools, children’s museums and hospitals have snapped them up as teaching tools, interactive toys for play spaces and small-motor-control therapy aids. “Children’s museums have told us they’ve never seen more engaged dads,” adds Graube, who says specialty toy retailers will soon begin carrying Fort Boards.  

One pack of Fort Boards panels and hinges costs $125. Graube, who lives in Seattle, has hired marketing and logistics help for his South Lake Union venture, which has been funded by friends, family and $20,000 from winning the grand prize in this year’s Microsoft Small Business Competition. 

“Seeing people’s creativity with them has been amazing,” Graube says.

Like Price and Donaldson, Graube is already at work on his next product, another activity-related children’s product that works with the Fort Boards. He expects to start selling it late this year or early next.

PUTTING A CHARGE INTO BICYCLE DESIGN

Charging Ahead: The Zeitgeist X City Bike, left, weighs less than 50 pounds
and incorporates a slim lithium battery that fits into the frame's down tube.

Kartik ram approaches his startup as a student of business. Make that many businesses. He hopes to tap into the mindset of people who shop at Apple and Nordstrom. And then there’s the Whole Foods shopper. And the Uber rider.

He wants to grab a page from Tesla’s playbook, copying the launch of the Roadster, which broke the electric car mold. Ultimately, he wants to be the Warby Parker of electric bikes, selling mostly online (at zeitgeistmobility.com) but not avoiding retail shops entirely. In time, in fact, he wouldn’t mind selling his Zeitgeist bikes at REI.

Above all, Ram doesn’t want the Zeitgeist to be something that sits in the garage as an afterthought.

“We want to make it so you just don’t leave home without it,” he says.

The Zeitgeist X City Bike is a $4,000 carbon-fiber, motor-assisted bicycle designed in partnership with award-winning Danish designer Brian Hoehl. It weighs only 44 pounds. (A less expensive “S” version made of aluminum alloy weighs just over 50 pounds.) 

Most electric bikes are clunky and heavy, saddled with large motors and with what Ram says are cheap parts. The Zeitgeist, manufactured in China, is lean and sleek and contemporary looking. It has a high-end Shimano drive train with a 500-watt Bafang motor that helps when climbing hills. The Tektro hydraulic disc brakes make stopping a sure thing, and the Alex 36-hole alloy rims and Schwalbe tires make the ride a smooth one. A 36-volt battery, hidden inside the  frame, uses high-density lithium-ion technology similar to the batteries powering Teslas.

The bike can travel between 80 and 100 miles — depending upon the conditions — on a single charge, and Ram regularly beats cars traveling up Queen Anne hill, passing cars on his Zeitgeist as drivers struggle up the steep hill.

Zeitgeist’s co-founders are Ram, a veteran of Alibaba and Singtel (short for Singapore Telecommunications) and also managing partner of Fashion Fund, a crowdfunding platform for the fashion industry; and Gregg Stewart, formerly of AOL, Telegraph Media Group and others. They don’t want to sell electric bikes to biking enthusiasts but to people who haven’t ridden a bicycle in years, who want a better travel option as city traffic creates gridlock, and who don’t want to perspire too much during their commute.

Zeitgeist recently sold its bike through the Crowd Supply fundraising platform to test the market and as a way to get buyer feedback so it can then improve the design. Ram says the company is cash-flow positive and that it will take only a few hundred bike sales to make the company profitable. With subsequent designs, Ram and Stewart plan to apply for multiple design and utility patents.

Each bike is profitable on its own, and the first iteration, like Tesla’s Roadster, is designed to test the market and make sure the business model works. “We’re selling a better-quality bike and can get higher margins selling it direct,” Ram says. “We don’t have to allocate 40 percent of our costs to paying for real estate.”