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The view from my hotel room this week in Renton, Wash., where developers are seeking a tech tenant for a giant new 730,000 square-foot office building on the shores of Lake Washington. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Is Renton, Wash. the next Pacific Northwest tech hub?

That’s the question we set out to answer this week as part of our GeekWire on the Road project in a growing city 12 miles south of downtown Seattle on the southeastern shore of Lake Washington.

I embedded myself in Renton over the past week, meeting the locals, interviewing the leaders, eating the food, driving the streets, and much more as I got a feel for what it’s like to live and work in a suburb that has seen its population double over the last 15 years.

Boeing’s 737 assembly plant sits adjacent to the new Hyatt Regency hotel. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Listen to my key takeaways in the final segment of our Week in Geek Podcast, below, recorded on location in Renton this week, and continue reading for a rundown.

Here are Renton’s biggest upsides, from my perspective:

  • There’s a nice mix of longtime locals and new residents, including many tech workers from Seattle who came in search of cheaper housing prices — the median home price in Renton is $467,000, compared to $739,600 in Seattle.
  • There are solid places to eat and drink, including several new joints. Melrose Grill ranks up there with big city steakhouses. Naan-N-Curry, a favorite of Satya Nadella and Bill Gates, is excellent. New watering holes such as The Brewmaster’s Taproom and Four Generals Brewing offer comfortable places to enjoy craft beers with friendly owners and patrons. And Renton’s best-kept dining secret — IKEA — will fill you up on meatballs, salmon, mashed potatoes, and veggies for less than $10.
Renton’s best kept dinner deal? For $10.98, a healthy and filling fixing of protein and veggies at IKEA. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)
  • The diversity is noticeable, both with ethnicity — Renton’s school district is the eighth-most diverse in the nation — and the type of work people are doing. It’s refreshing.
  • Renton is centrally located, offering accessibility to Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, and other surrounding cities. It’s also just six miles from the airport.
  • A burgeoning downtown area seems poised to be a hotspot. New popular businesses such as the 8-Bit Arcade Bar are paving the way.
  • There’s a strong community in Renton that supports initiatives like the new STEM-focused elementary school that opened last month.
Sartori Elementary is a new STEM-focused school that opened last month in downtown Renton. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Renton has plenty of room for tech companies big and small, with cheaper office rent than Seattle or Bellevue. But does it have enough appeal to attract many more employers?

There are some downsides:

  • No tech ecosystem. Boeing has a huge 737 assembly plant in Renton; Wizards of the Coast — maker of Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons — is HQ’d there; and there’s a budding healthcare cluster. But you can count the number of Renton-based tech startups on one hand. There are no co-working spaces or tech investment firms. Other than helping the balance sheet with lower rent, it may be tough to convince a founder or CEO to set up shop in Renton. Most large tech companies that have planted roots in the region in recent years — including Salesforce, Facebook, Google, Apple and dozens of others — have chosen the high-tech clusters of Seattle or Bellevue.
  • Transportation. Traffic is “horrendous,” as Mayor Denis Law told GeekWire. Getting through Renton’s infamous “S-curves” or up and down I-5 or I-405 can be a nightmare during rush hour. This will get worse with more people and companies moving there. Perhaps a water taxi will help.
  • Things to do. Renton kept me entertained for a week, and I didn’t even get to all the bars or visit the city’s 29 parks. But it’s no Seattle or even Bellevue, as far as various events or destinations to enjoy. The simplicity might be an attraction to some, but perhaps not for young techies looking for a big city vibe.
Is this water taxi the answer to Renton’s traffic woes? (Teknicraft Design Rendering)

Some say Renton could be the next Bellevue or Redmond, two cities that have also grown quickly in Seattle’s shadow thanks to the tech boom spilling out of the urban core.

But there’s something different about Renton, rooted in its long history as an industrial leader, a coal mining center that evolved into the home for companies such as Boeing and Paccar.

Renton is riding a wave of economic momentum. City Hall issued more than 5,700 business permits in 2017 and private investment in the city eclipsed $500 million last year.

That could continue if the tech industry does indeed gravitate to the area.

As the sun sets over Lake Washington, a juxtaposition in Renton, where the new Southport campus is flanked by the Boeing plant where 737s are constructed. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

But as Liza Rickey, assistant principal at the new STEM-focused Sartori Elementary told me: “Renton is the next Renton. I don’t think it’s going to ever be like the communities around it because it is so connected. Renton is real. Growth and change is going to happen, but I think it will be positive and Renton will maintain its roots.”

Be sure to check out all our coverage from Renton this week:

[Editor’s Note: Seco is the underwriting sponsor of this kickoff of the GeekWire on the Road series in Renton. Specific news coverage decisions are made independently by GeekWire’s editorial team, without involvement or influence from GeekWire’s business team or sponsors.]

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