RENTON, Wash. — This city and cutting-edge tech startups are not strangers to each other. But they have an on-again, off-again kind of relationship, despite flirtations that date back decades.
You might say it’s complicated.
I know. I’m closer to that relationship than most. I was in management at two Renton-based tech startups in two different decades, one at the dawn of the personal computer era and a second time during the delirium of the dot-com boom. And I can’t help but wonder: could renewed efforts to lure tech companies to Renton really be different this time?
In what would be in the shadow of Renton’s ginormous Ikea building — if you tipped it on its side — sits a very beige, very nondescript office park. Along one of its narrow, winding streets is low-slung Building 4 and the office at 290 S.W. 43rd Street. Inside it, some 30 years ago, was the headquarters of a key piece of Apple Computer history, the APPLE Co-op and the original Apple Programmers and Developers Association.
In 1987-88, when I held several titles at both the Co-op and its APDA unit, the personal computer was moving out of the realm of hobbyists and into the home. The Co-op had outgrown its original Renton location, eventually moving to the East Valley Business Park and taking up much of Building 4. As the largest official Apple user group in the world, it had roughly 50,000 members, published magazines (including the canonical and often very technical Call-A.P.P.L.E.), and an estimated 50 employees.
The Apple Pugetsound Program Library Exchange was so influential and well-known at the time that Apple Computer approached it to become the publishing and distribution source of the company’s developer tools and manuals. The resulting APDA also grew rapidly, to some 20,000 paying members who wanted early access to Apple Computer’s developer materials.
Eventually, Apple realized it would like to have that business back and in 1988, the company bought APDA from APPLE Co-op. Within a couple of years, the Co-op’s influence and size had diminished, even though both it and its magazine were later revived. But what an ’80s rush. In Renton.
Drive to 290 S.W. 43rd Street today, and you’ll still find the same office park and one-story, nondescript building. But The Little Gym of Kent/Renton is now at that address and has been, its director tells me, since 2008. There is no sign of the cooled, restricted-access room for an IBM System/38 among the gym mats. To its left, where the Co-op’s publishing offices were, is a crossfit gym. To the right, where I recall a Co-op store with all manner of hard-to-find Apple hardware, software, and accessories, is a small Christian ministry. At least the Round Table Pizza nearby at which I’d often have lunch is still there.
No one I spoke with in building 4 recalls Renton’s one-time key role in Apple Computer history.
So, why choose Renton three decades ago? Dick Hubert, who ran APPLE Co-op during its heyday, said it wasn’t anything magical. Hubert and another organization officer lived in Renton and worked for Boeing.
“The short answer is location and building availability,” he told me in an email. “Cost was within our budget and less than other spaces in the area.”
A short 10-minute drive away, after making a dog-leg turn by Wizards of the Coast‘s shiny headquarters, sits another artifact of Renton’s flirtation with tech startups. A bit more than a decade later, the internet era was in full swing. Dot-coms hoping to change the world, or simply cash in, were looking for space.
I was the newly named vice president of marketing for iCopyright.com, a web-based automated reprint and reproduction rights service, and we’d outgrown the houseboat of one of the co-founders.
The City of Renton had moved out of its old City Hall building at 200 Mill Avenue South, between the Cedar River and I-405. So in early 1999, we moved in, taking the 6th floor at the very top and eventually expanding to four of the building’s six floors.
Was the attraction the city infrastructure? No, we literally had to bring our own light bulbs and toilet paper to use the bathrooms. Was it the culture and cuisine nearby? There was, and still is, the quaint Renton History Museum a block away, and if you liked cars you were and are relatively close to the auto dealerships lining Grady Way. There’s not a lot within easy walking distance, a detail I confirmed with some of the building’s current occupants.
No, the attraction — not unlike why APPLE Co-op located in Renton — was that it was cheap.
“We didn’t choose Renton,” recalled iCopyright founder and CEO Michael O’Donnell. “Renton chose us.”
O’Donnell, who now lives in Florida and advises entrepreneurs and investors, said the spouse of the startup’s director of finance worked in economic development for the City of Renton. “She was able to swing us a sweet deal,” he said.
“The city did not offer much infrastructure at the time and few places to walk to lunch or drinks after work,” O’Donnell said. “It was always a source of contention with some and our HR staff said it made it difficult to recruit at the time. I personally would have preferred an environment where there were lots of other startup companies and a support ecosystem.”
Back then, the only other tech startup that O’Donnell recalls in the area was Classmates.com, some distance away, and he said there was no interaction between the two companies.
Eventually, iCopyright relocated to Pioneer Square in Seattle. Classmates also wound up in Seattle.
Today, the old City Hall building looks much as I remember it nearly 20 years ago. It’s a large gray-green box on a wide base — we used to call it the Borg cube. There’s still plentiful free parking, and still little attractive to do within the immediate area.
But inside remain strong signs of tech.
While the one-time 6th floor HQ of iCopyright is now the offices of the Renton City Attorney, two of the floors are occupied by Renton Prep, a Christian preparatory school for grades 3-10. That’s notable. In September, Microsoft named Renton Prep one of 17 institutions in its new Flagship School program, after Renton Prep’s participation in Microsoft’s Showcase Schools initiative.
An enthusiastic Dr. David-Paul Zimmerman, Renton Prep’s administrator and chief operations officer, gave me a quick tour of the tech-savvy space. Candidly, it’s amazing what the school has been able to do with it, creating flexible open classrooms with technology to support projects and instruction for its 170 students.
But even Zimmerman doesn’t plan to stay in the old City Hall building. That’s because the city is selling it to a developer that will tear down the Borg cube and erect a series of new buildings in what’s now the expansive parking lot. There will be rental housing, retail and office space, and a new home for Renton Prep. That new school inside will be constructed with the assistance of the Microsoft Flagship School Program and likely be an education technology showpiece — in Renton.
It’s that approach that may lead to a longer-lasting relationship between Renton and the tech sector. Not bolting an entrepreneurial sensibility onto existing structures or neighborhoods, but building it in. Walkability. Nearby food. Places for cultural activities, mingling, or just mindless fun. An area people want to spend time in, not just commute to.
It could be in mixed-use developments like the one coming to old City Hall along the Cedar River, or the huge Southport project on the shores of Lake Washington. It’s clearly something that Renton’s city council has considered and reflected in a downtown civic core action plan that it adopted this year.
As I walked away from the old cube, kicking wet leaves and looking back to what appeared to be brackets that once held the iCopyright sign, it became clear that cheap alone is not enough to be a tech hub, especially if Seattle and the Eastside remain vibrant alternatives. Renton tried cheap, and it never quite stuck. There also has to be community.