The town’s name is synonymous with Microsoft, but there’s more to the burg than Windows and Office
How does a city filled with high-tech workers inspire its residents to get involved in the bland budget-writing process? By using a video game, of course.
There’s no doubt Redmond knows its residents. Thanks to the presence of Microsoft and Nintendo, as well as the somewhat lesser-known DigiPen Institute of Technology, Redmond has a large population of video game-minded people.
Working off that logic, the city in 2014 collaborated with a group of DigiPen’s Singaporean exchange students to develop an interactive game that featured the city’s budget. The 1,400 participants received virtual coins as rewards. The coins could be used to vote on the city’s top priorities.
The city expected infrastructure and safety to be citizens’ top concerns, said Jill E. Smith, Redmond’s economic development manager. Instead, “clean and green” proved to be the highest priority. Using those results, the city adjusted the budget to put more emphasis on environmentally friendly projects.
“The game took what can be a dry subject and turned it into something fun,” said Smith.
Microsoft, which moved its headquarters from Bellevue to Redmond in 1986, is the city’s most obvious economic influence. The company has more than 40,000 employees in the Puget Sound region, most of whom work in Redmond.
“Microsoft was a game-changer,” said Bart Phillips, CEO of OneRedmond, a public-private partnership aimed at economic development. “But in the 1980s, there already were a lot of Redmond companies in the tech field — Rocket Research, Physio Control, Nintendo. Microsoft definitely changed the face of Redmond, but it overshadows a lot of other companies that were already here.
“While we have a strong economy here, it’s important the city is mindful that the vibrant businesses we have now are not an entitlement,” Phillips continued. “The economy here is wonderful, but we have to work to maintain it. We need to continue to grow firms and work on community development aspects that attract the talent.”
The video game-development industry, referred to as interactive media, is a powerful local force. Large firms like Nintendo of America and Xbox are based here, and smaller independent firms dot the city.
Thanks to DigiPen, Redmond is the starting point for many inspiring game developers. Jordan Hemenway, one of three founders of Refract Studios, was drawn to Redmond in 2008 by the region’s strong gaming sector. Originally from Iowa, Hemenway selected DigiPen as his school of choice because it focused on what he wanted to do: develop video games.
“The school is very project-based,” he said.
Some DigiPen graduates migrate across the lake to Seattle, but many stay in Redmond.
“None of us are city types,” Hemenway said, referring to himself and Refract’s other cofounders, Kyle Holdwick and Jason Nollan. “We like the calmer aspect of Redmond and the Eastside. It’s plenty convenient. A lot of our friends are still in this area working in the triple-A world of Microsoft and Nintendo.”
Many of those who work at the large technology companies still develop software and games independently. There are plenty of like-minded tech people who call Redmond home, Hemenway said.
Refract’s main project is a video game called Distance. It’s still in development, but has been made available to the public on an early-access basis. Much of the game’s feedback comes from local friends Hemenway sees often.
“It’s all we do,” Hemenway said. “We live like students, but it’s worth it because we are making a racing game that has a mysterious story. This is stuff I couldn’t do anywhere else.”
Interactive media isn’t the only game in town. The space industry is another growing cluster in Redmond. Six companies in town are focused on space, including SpaceX, which recently established an office that will build Internet-transmitting satellites.
“We start building this talent base, then we draw a cluster of talent, and soon we will have a significant critical mass,” Phillips said.
Redmond’s major employers and suburban location make it a city with more jobs than residents. There are more than 80,000 jobs in town, and just 58,000 residents.
“We are an importer of jobs during the week,” Smith said, but the city is planning for residential growth. Several projects are under way that will provide more urban housing in the city’s two high-density communities: downtown Redmond and the Overlake area. In addition, parks and trails are being improved and created. Reducing traffic congestion with biking and walking trails is a priority.
“We are developing our first downtown park, which is 2 acres in the heart of downtown,” Smith said.
The city also has taken steps to make the permitting process less arduous.
“We looked at how the process works, and made it more efficient and better for the customer,” Smith said. Thanks to the city’s efforts, the building permit process is now 50 percent faster, she said.
The town’s service sector is catering to the demands of high-tech workers.
“The ever-growing tech market can have a big impact on local small businesses,” said Tim Short, owner of Redmond Bar and Grill. “It definitely has the potential to bring new faces to a business if the outreach is correct.”
Short finds digital communication and social media marketing more efficient and effective than print advertising in Redmond. This especially is true with the tech-heavy lunch crowd. The evening crowd, on the other hand, is made up of a different, more local demographic.
“This has caused us to adjust how we market and what we focus on,” Short said.
The needs of the tech employees don’t always bode well for small business owners. Housing density in the downtown and Overlake areas is good for small businesses because they bring in more people and customers, Short said, but those developments tend to absorb parking spaces.
“As Redmond grows, the city needs a comprehensive plan that includes parking lots and structures to support both downtown businesses and residents,” Short said.
At Redmond Town Center, a new pedestrian walkway running through the center of the property recently was unveiled. It includes seating areas, a shuffleboard court, and an outdoor fireplace. In October, the center’s popular fountain will reopen following renovation.
“The additional common areas provide more space to play, exercise, relax, enjoy a meal outside, and build community,” said Jessica Morgan, marketing manager for Redmond Town Center. The center is 92 percent leased with several new merchants opening in recent months, including Guitar Center, Coder Camp, Giggle Jungle, Joyous Noise, Orangetheory Fitness, Playlive Nation, Brightmont Academy, and Premier Periodontics.
The key for all of Redmond’s industries is talent, Phillips said. Recruiting companies used to focus on land and facilities. Now it’s all about talent.
“We are positioning Redmond to have the densest population of talent (in the area), but so far we haven’t been able to produce enough talent locally,” he said. “We are making the right moves, but demand for talented workers is so strong we have to recruit from outside of the area.”