This month, our 425 Business road trip takes us 10 miles from Snoqualmie Valley along Interstate 90 to fast-changing Issaquah

Some 33,000 people make their homes in Issaquah, a suburb nestled in an outdoorsy paradise surrounded by picturesque mountains, rivers, and lakes. But beneath the outdoor-focused aura is a fast-growing city with burgeoning tech, retail, and tourism scenes.

Issaquah’s population has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. Issaquah of 2000 was a bedroom community for commuters bound for offices at Boeing, Microsoft, and Seattle companies. Today, it’s a modern city that’s been able to hang on to, and take advantage of, its small-town charm.

With brisk growth in the Puget Sound area expected to continue, Issaquah officials are expecting more people to move to the growing burg.

“You can kind of plant your flag and say, ‘I’m not gonna let that happen,’ and try and fight what probably will happen anyway,” says Issaquah Economic Development Director Keith Niven. “Or you can plan for (growth) and do it in a way that keeps us as a community we want to be. That’s the path that the city has always chosen.”

2015-04-06-Keith-Niven-0009

Keith Niven, Issaquah’s economic development director, says the city is planning to become more business-friendly as its population grows.

In 2012, Issaquah adopted the Central Issaquah Plan as a proactive approach to developing the city’s commercial core over the next two decades. The project covers approximately 89 percent of Issaquah’s commercially zoned land and encompasses 13,000 employees at nine of the city’s 10 largest employers. The redevelopment area covers 840 acres. When the project is finished, Issaquah will have a redeveloped urban center.

“Over the past 15 years, we’ve been building out the new neighborhoods in town, and it’s really allowed the existing city to stay the way it wanted to be,” Niven says. “The city is looking at where to put existing growth that will be additive to the community and not destructive. That’s what the Central Issaquah project is really about: looking at how to infill new development and households and keep the community a desirable place to live.”

Only 5.7 percent of the city’s 13.5 million square feet of office space is vacant, a comparatively low rate on the Eastside. Renton has 6.7 percent vacancy in commercial space, and 9.7 percent of Bellevue’s commercial space is open. The Central Issaquah Plan will increase the city core’s commercial square footage from 6.3 million to 12.5 million, which will alleviate some of the strain in the office market.

“We get calls all the time from businesses that are looking for space, and we don’t have anything for them,” Niven says. “We’re kind of turning people away at the door.”

2015-04-08-Issaquah-0003Despite its currently meager supply, Issaquah is better able to provide affordable commercial space than its Eastside neighbors, as one legacy business recently found.

Gilman Gallery Antiques and Design has been in business since 1987, and Darlene Cohen has owned it since 2008. In 2014, Cohen was forced to vacate the gallery’s old building in Gilman Square to make way for new construction. Cohen wanted to stay central to the area, but had a hard time finding affordable space.

Cohen looked at space in Bellevue’s Bel-Red corridor and around Factoria but found the areas too expensive. She eventually agreed on lease terms for retail space next to Value Village on Lake Sammamish Parkway.

“We were open to other locations if they were major spots where people had easy access,” Cohen says. “We had become an icon for people who shopped from (Seattle) and along I-90. We get tons of people from over the mountains in here. You ask them if they’ve been in before, and they say they’ve been coming here for 26 years. I really wanted to stay someplace where people could get here easily.”

Costco is another foundation stone for Issaquah. The retailer, founded in 1983, moved to Issaquah from Kirkland in 1996. In 2014, Costco and Issaquah came to a 30-year agreement allowing a 1.5 million-square-foot expansion to Costco headquarters in the Pickering district, tripling the size of its campus.

IssaquahPopulationSquareThere’s also a large Microsoft presence in Issaquah. The company leases office space for approximately 3,000 employees in Sammamish Park Place. Swedish Hospital also expanded in 2014, nearly doubling its square footage and adding new programs and jobs.

“One of the things we are tasked to do is not just add jobs, but add jobs that are in character with our community image and brand, so that’s kind of part of what our job is, to be thoughtful in how we grow our economy and business community,” Niven says.

The city’s vibrant outdoor tourism sector also is growing.

“I think a lot of what is interesting about Issaquah has to do with our geography in relation to the out-of-doors. … There are a number of bike shops and shops geared toward fitness and outdoor recreation, and that’s another new sector that we’re really kind of excited about,” Niven says.

Did you know

Issaquah has its pros and cons, and here’s where it lines up when it comes to the numbers:

  • Residents’ mean commute time is 28.1 minutes. Issaquah might have many employers within the city limits, but it looks like many residents still commute to Seattle, Bellevue, and Redmond.
  • Issaquah sports plenty of green space for its 33,000 residents with 11.38 square miles within city boundaries. There are also forests and state parks nearby.
  • Residents’ income falls in the middle of the Eastside’s suburbs with a median household income of $86,865.

Issaquah’s 10 Largest Non-retail Employers

  1. Costco Headquarters
  2. Microsoft
  3. Swedish Medical
  4. City of Issaquah
  5. Siemens
  6. SanMar
  7. King County
  8. Applied Precision (GE)
  9. Virginia Mason
  10. Issaquah School District