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Archway To Innovation

Guion Rosenzweig recently spoke to South Sound Business Magazine about a planned tech center in Tacoma’s Old City Hall, adding another layer to the Seattle area's burgeoning startup scene. As the area’s tech startup scene continues to develop, resources abound for entrepreneurs of all stripes.


If an estimated 100,000 people a day commute from Pierce County to King county for their high-paying software development, aerospace, and management jobs, mostly in the technology sector, think of the economic impact that would result of 10 percent could work where they live.


So wonders Lee Reeves, who co-founded Startup253 with Tacoma real estate developer, entrepreneur, angel investor, and CEO and founder of Surge Tacoma Eli Moreno to bring more attention to Tacoma’s still evolving and somewhat fragmented technology scene, seek a more cohesive ecosystem, and help area startups make the financial, business, and other connections to grow locally.


Especially those that can scale up with high-paying jobs.


“I think that there just needs to be someone or something to tell the story of the founders that are building these great companies … because they just get lost in the noise of what’s going on in Seattle,” Reeves said. He wants to create a mechanism to help support early stage companies so when somebody graduates the University of Washington Tacoma with an engineering degree and wants to launch a startup, they don’t look first to Seattle or the Eastside.


Added Reeves, whose interests in Startup253 are separate from his day job as a manager at Oracle for Startups: “That’s not a bad thing per-se, but it’s like this is the problem that Tacoma has right now; people just leave” for their jobs in King County.


Reeves, Moreno and Kristine Grace, a strategic adviser to Startup253, seek to strengthen the tech startup network in Tacoma and create more home-grown success stories, in part, through Moreno’s plans to include a technology center as part of his scheduled renovation of Tacoma’s Old City Hall, which is located within the U-shaped boundaries of Commerce Street, Pacific Avenue, and South Seventh Street, and the building has been vacant for 10 years.



Moreno, through his Surge Tacoma coworking business, has a development agreement with the city to refurbish the 1893 building, which includes brick walls with large interior arches, high ceilings, and wood floors awaiting a return to their original luster. Plans include dining and retail on the lower floors; coworking and office space on the third and fourth floors, with the tech center, business-education programming and Startup253 office and networking services part of the third floor; micro apartments on the fifth floor; and restaurant/event space on the sixth floor.


The $15 million project is slated for completion by the end of 2021, when Moreno hopes to ring in 2022, literally, by also rehabbing the building’s iconic clock and bell tower.


Moreno’s vision for Old City Hall is as expansive as the views from the building’s upper floors, where large windows frame dramatic scenes of Commencement Bay and the Port of Tacoma. The top floor restaurant/event space, with its glass atrium, expands the view to include the clock tower, where the gears behind four clock faces will again turn, like the gears of innovation within the minds of Old City Hall’s occupants creating Tacoma’s future technologies, companies, and jobs.


“There’s nothing like this in Tacoma,” Moreno said of the combined educational, entrepreneurial, dining, retail, and residential components under one roof.


The idea is modeled after similar projects that have proved popular in New York, San Francisco, Lisbon, and elsewhere, according to Moreno and Grace, who will lead the tech center’s educational programming.

Grace, an oral and facial surgeon, also is working to cultivate Tacoma’s biotech sector through RAIN (Readiness Acceleration and Innovation Network), where she’s director of business development for the nonprofit life science incubator that works to grow local jobs, talent, and companies in biotech.


From RAIN, she started Jolt Biotech, a biotech coworking space for companies to grow their biotech startups and companies in Tacoma. An entrepreneur, Grace also started a digital marketing company for healthcare providers that was acquired in 2011, and is an angel investor.


Old City Hall offers a space for companies to grow from needing little space as they launch on the third floor, to, as their business grows, expanding into larger spaces on the fourth floor, where they will have bigger offices and conference rooms.


“We’re seeing this in other cities, this is what the generation of startups want: They want a hundred feet, they want to go to work, they want to go to sleep, and they want to eat within a hundred feet of where they are.”


Old City Hall adds to a startup ecosystem for tech companies that also can attract startups from outside Tacoma, she said. Tacoma has a network, mentors – not consultants – willing to help, an ecosystem of founders who meet regularly to share ideas and comprise strong tech companies that may not get much press, but are very good, she said. Their success stories can entice other companies to Tacoma.


“We actually are really proud of the technology companies that are here and with the University of Washington Tacoma engineering program, we know we are growing this huge workforce of engineers and computer scientists and cybersecurity people and mechanical engineers that are looking to join companies here in town, and they don’t want to move out of Tacoma,” Grace said.


She sees Tacoma, a secondary city to Seattle with its robust network and funding, as having the potential to become what Brooklyn is to New York, or Oakland is to San Francisco.


“We are following in the footsteps here in the technology center with what those areas are doing,” Grace said. “And I think we are trying to model Old City Hall and the programs and footprint of what’s going on here around how those secondary cities have had success, and they’re now thriving.”


Surge Tacoma operates three other coworking and office locations in town, roughly occupied half by startups and half by established businesses, according to Guion Rosenzweig, project manager for Old City Hall, and operations manager for Surge Tacoma and Premier Residential, Moreno’s real estate development company. One of those coworking sites, the Union Club, which Moreno redeveloped at 539 Broadway, can be seen through the windows of Old City Hall and is just a three-minute walk away.


Old City Hall will be Surge Tacoma’s premier site, Moreno said.


“We are trying to create a space where a promising young person can go from having an idea when they are in high school to all of a sudden they graduated, they went to school, they come back, look at all of these resources that area here,” he said. “Not just office space, but the connections, the network, the potential funding sources. So that’s what we’re going to try to create here – kind of an engine of growth and jobs, high-paying jobs, new ideas.”

Old City Hall’s technology center would include Surge Labs as a space to develop and support high-growth startups, and Surge Education, two six-month programs run by the nonprofit Surge Institute to train cohorts in business skills and entrepreneurism, one for Tacoma high-schoolers and one for adults seeking to develop a business. Startup253 will serve as kind of the third step for the startups, Rosenzweig said.


“The Startup253 is really, ‘I have an idea, now I’m ready to start this business,’” she said.


Startup253 also will office in the tech center, serving as a support organization for events, content planning, and facilitating networking and connections to investors, legal experts, and others.

“I do believe that it’s going to be the central hub for all things technology, startup, entrepreneurship in the South Sound,” Reeves said.


Startup253 says it unites entrepreneurial leaders, venture capital, and corporate and local government sectors toward its goal of helping the South Sound become the “best home for innovation and creative new companies.”


Reeves and others don’t want to replicate Seattle, but believe there’s an opportunity to create more tech energy in Tacoma and the living-wage jobs the city wants, while maintaining Tacoma’s identity and improving the quality of life for thousands of today’s commuters.


Said Rosenzweig, “We do want to offer the citizens of Pierce County and Tacoma a way to have this area grow and not just have all of our resources head up north. We are a big believer in the potential of Tacoma."


“We have just so much to offer down here in the South Sound."


People are already moving to Pierce County for housing, but Surge Tacoma believes the region offers more than just a housing option, Rosenzweig said.


Surge Tacoma is trying to figure out ways to make sure people know what’s available to them in projects, revenues, and resources, she said, “that they have a home down here in the South Sound. We know it’ll take a little bit of work, but luckily the tides are kind of turning with us at the same time. People are seeing Tacoma and the South Sound for the area that it is for a lot of opportunities, a lot of ways to invest, and ways to grow that you might not have in the large ocean that is King County.”


Startup253 also signed a six-month service contract with the City of Tacoma in the fall to introduce venture capital funds to Tacoma companies and prospective companies to Tacoma to see all the city has to offer.


Read John Stearns' full article in the February 2020 Print Edition of South Sound Business.