Spaceworks Tacoma will celebrate four new Hilltop businesses on Friday

Seattle attorney and commercial real estate project manager Paul Okner never really knew what Tacoma natives knew – or thought they knew – about the Hilltop neighborhood.

“I’m not from Tacoma. I don’t have that historical background. I guess I came too late to be scared,” he said Tuesday.

Okner recently concluded a deal with Spaceworks Tacoma to welcome four businesses into a long-vacant 5,000-sq.-ft. Hilltop property purchased as an investment.

“I realized the neighborhood had a lot of potential and character,” Okner said. “It had a community spirit that was on the verge.”

He had visited the restaurants and retail shops in the area.

“(I like) its location, the proximity to downtown,” he said. “It was a great vibe, a good feeling.”

He did not begin negotiations with Spaceworks until after he bought the building. He appreciated the Spaceworks goal.

“It’s an opportunity to test out your business before you quit your consistent paycheck,” said Heather Joy, Spaceworks manager.

The program is funded by the City of Tacoma, the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, federal grants and private donors, and is administered by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber.

“The goal is to activate vacant storefronts and give opportunities to creative people to start a business or exhibit their artwork,” Joy said. “The whole goal is to put someone into a space so they’ll lease it after six months.”

The Spaceworks process, launched four years ago, begins with an owner looking for an occupant and with a potential occupant looking for space.

Spaceworks marries the two, and the occupant then pays six months of rent at $1-per-month while receiving business counseling and training from Chamber experts. The renters also pay for insurance and utilities, and provide sweat equity at the property.

Currently, Joy said, Spaceworks is seeing a 75 percent success rate, measured by the number of businesses signing a full lease agreement after the initial six months.

The waiting list has 20 businesses approved and hoping for space. The applicants range from a theater group and comic book shop to a few graphic designers and a veteran-related film project.

Established and prospering projects include Grit City Grindhouse, a skateboard and longboard shop downtown; Moss & Mineral, an arts studio and botanical emporium; and the artistic window treatments at the downtown Woolworth Building. Other projects open or about to open are located in Ruston and in the former U.S. Courthouse and post office on A Street.

Applications for spaces are taken once or twice a year, Joy said. The next opening will come in October.

And those four businesses at 917-923 Martin Luther King Jr. Way will officially open on Friday evening with a party that will include music, food, beer and a chance to tour the businesses.

They are:

•  Concrete Market, a showroom for concrete countertops, tables, sinks and art.

•  The Tshirt Men Co., a design and production firm focusing on T-shirts and other proclamatory fashion.

•  Spun Clay Arts Studio & Gallery, where customers can buy, or produce, either functional or artistic clay pottery.

•  DubCity Studios, or Monopoly Entertainment, with a rehearsal and performance space and offering promotional and marketing advice in the entertainment field.

Brothers Willie and David Combs own the Tshirt Men Co. providing screen printing, heat-vinyl transfers, stickers and decals.

The Spaceworks process, Willie said, “has been pretty beneficial for both parties. The No. 1 reason I like it is that they don’t just give us the keys, they also teach us the how and the why, everything from social media marketing to business insurance and financial planning. All that.”

Combs’ new landlord, Paul Okner, is pleased by the chance for his property to succeed, and for the overall success of the program.

“I’m extremely optimistic about this project,” he said. “I’d like to see how it develops over the next year or two, and see how the tenants do.”

He is not alone in his optimism.

Founded in Tacoma in 1925, Johnson Candy Co. moved to its current home in 1949.

Okner’s building is across the street.

“A couple of years ago there were squatters,” said Bill Johnson. “We’re happy to have any of the unoccupied buildings occupied again.”

Said Ron Johnson, longtime candymaker and Bill’s father, “It’s nice to have people in there.”