Spaceworks sparks business in Downtown Tacoma

After the economic downturn of 2008, the former spaces of businesses were left empty. In response, cities began to allow artists to fill the spaces temporarily without paying rent.

This initiative gave rise to Spaceworks Tacoma, a program launched in 2010 that matches creatively inclined entrepreneurs with commercial building property owners.

The program gives artists without the financial means required to get a business off the ground an opportunity to test the profitability of an idea. Spaceworks then matches the entrepreneurs with property owners who donate the space.

“Property owners generously donate the space to the small business because it allows them to test business ideas, to see if they work.  It also looks better for the property owner if the space is filled,” the manager of Spaceworks Tacoma, Heather Joy said.

After the business is up and running, the owners must pay $50 to $150 for utilities and $100 for liability insurance per month.

However, this is a minimal cost in comparison to the cost of renting a commercial space.

The businesses are given the space rent-free for a six-month period, after which, if their business is doing well, they can apply to stay in the space.

Of the 32 creative enterprises that Spaceworks has worked with, eight of them became lease-paying tenants.

One of Joy’s favorite projects is called Write@253, a free community writing center. Behind the center are Mary Fox, a writing instructor at TCC, and Jen McDonald, a volunteer coordinator for the Tacoma Children’s Museum.

After Write@253 opened with Spaceworks’ help, it became a nonprofit equipped with skilled volunteers who devote their time to getting students of all ages excited about writing.

The center has been renting the space for a year and is another one of the Spaceworks-aided small enterprises that has become successful enough to pay rent for the space.  Recently, Spaceworks and Write@253 teamed up for a project—hanging writing produced at the center in an alley at 11th and Court C.

Another successful business up and running thanks to Spaceworks is the Grit City Grindhouse, a popular skate shop on S. Seventh run by Robert Boyle and two UPS alumnae, Kevin Carlton and Taylor Woodruff.

As both a sporting goods store and fully functioning art house, the shop provides customers with a diverse selection of longboards and skateboards as well as the option to have a customized board made with original graphics.

“The application process for Spaceworks is very straightforward,” Carlton said. “They seek fewer than 2000 words to answer nine questions. My business partners completed that process (with a little help from me) before I finished school last May.  We’d talked about opening a skate shop for the past four years, but all of us have wanted to open our own business for more than a decade.”

Grit City Grindhouse is just one example of young entrepreneurs making childhood dreams a reality.  Spaceworks allows these dreamers to make a go of it and get their idea off the ground – without the need of investors with deep pockets who may try to alter the business plan.

Spaceworks receives funding from the City of Tacoma, the Tacoma-Pierce county chamber, the National Endowment for the Arts, and various individuals.

“Tacoma is very supportive of the arts and creativity,” said Joy.  “Budding entrepreneurs should check out Spaceworks and go for it.  Small businesses are such a huge part of our economy.  There are a lot of resources available to folks trying to get something up and going.”

Joy is currently working on a unique training program that will teach artistically minded individuals how to build a business around their craft.

“If Spaceworks didn’t exist, we would not have the same shop we have currently.  The ability to forgo rent payments and reallocate funds into our business has been immensely helpful. Who knows what would have happened without Spaceworks,” said Carlton.

To learn more about Spaceworks and its projects, visit