Silicon Valley has lured many ambitious entrepreneurs south in search of funding, connections, or talent for hire, but Eastside cities also are positioning themselves as desirable homes for tech startups. If those cities are successful, there may no longer be a need for entrepreneurs to head south in pursuit of success.
“It’s been demonstrated that these entrepreneurs spin off into businesses that generate revenue for cities,” says Chris Salomone, Bellevue’s director of planning and community development. “The Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and Seattle have had their entrepreneurial community grow into thriving businesses with many hundreds of employees.”
But before a startup grows into a large, revenue-generating employer, it needs space. The cost of a commercial lease is a major concern for Eastside startups, and while cities can’t necessarily control real estate prices, they can help in other ways such as limiting licensing and other fees.
For the past three years, Kirkland has been doing just that. The city suspended transportation-impact fees for changes- of-business use, a provision that was just renewed on an open-ended basis. “If you are in downtown Kirkland and take what was a dress shop and make it into a wine bar, normally you would get more people, a lot more trips, but we don’t charge you for the trips,” says Kirkland’s economic development manager, Ellen Miller-Wolfe. In addition, Kirkland businesses with 10 or fewer employees don’t have to pay business license fees in their first year of operation.
Meanwhile in Bellevue, the city council unanimously supported repurposing a portion of Lincoln Center as Impact Hub Bellevue, a startup incubator and coworking and event space that opened Dec. 1. Impact Hub is a global entrepreneurship community with existing spaces in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and formerly in Kirkland (the Kirkland contingent moved to Bellevue). The city now leases 7,220 square feet of second-floor space to Impact Hub at below-market rates and may contribute up to $30,000 to the ground-floor 2,200-square-foot event space, which is shared between Impact Hub and the city for meetings and events.
Impact Hub Bellevue’s current site at Lincoln Center will be demolished as part of light rail construction in 2017. Salomone says the ultimate goal is to find a more permanent private-sector location to house Impact Hub Bellevue. “I think that’s a very logical spinoff, and we want to get the entrepreneurial community to come to Bellevue,” he says.
Kirkland and Bellevue also host entrepreneur-focused events at city facilities in the hopes of fostering new business ventures. Miller-Wolfe mentions New Tech Eastside, a new entrepreneur Meetup group that regularly uses the Kirkland Performance Center for events, while Salomone cites Tech Hive, a two-day event at Bellevue City Hall in September that he hopes to make an annual event. Tech Hive brought the winner of a startup competition in Beijing to present in Bellevue in late 2014.
Of course, startups need more than just
physical space to thrive, and officials say their cities support entrepreneurs in other ways. Several years ago, the city of Kirkland hired Duncan Milloy as its part-time business retention consultant. Milloy, along with Miller-Wolfe, mentors small businesses by connecting them with area resources such as the medical device incubator Lake Washington Institute of Technology or the Small Business Development Center.
Bellevue also has a bilingual website, bellevuecn.com, encouraging the exchange of ideas between tech entrepreneurs in China and Washington. “We’re giving them data about Bellevue in order to invite and welcome them to our city,” Salomone says. The city also is involved in creating a marketplace for crowdfunding startups and recently created an Economic Competitiveness Fund that will allocate $500,000 over the next two years to pursue additional opportunities for economic development.
While there may not be a single right way for cities to attract startups and nurture entrepreneurship, Miller-Wolfe sees opportunities for collaboration between cities on the Eastside.
“To the extent possible, Redmond, Bellevue, and Kirkland ought to be working on this together,” she says. “If you can’t find space in Kirkland, I’ll send you to Redmond or Bellevue. I think it’s going to take a cooperative approach, and we’re all working on it.”