We ran across lots of interesting case studies of rural towns leveraging arts and culture. But Tieton, Washington, might be unique. This story came to us from producers Phoebe Flanigan and Julie Sabatier of Rendered.
What are bookbinders, cheesemakers, cider-pressers and others doing in a town of 1,200 about a half hour outside Yakima?
It all started with Ed Marquand, a successful publisher from Seattle. Ten years ago, Marquand and his partner, Mike Longyear, were visiting their cabin in Central Washington. They’d been coming to the area since the late 80s, and had fallen in love with the region's wild beauty. Marquand liked to spend his afternoons going on long bike rides, and it was during one of those rides that he was waylaid in Tieton. He hit a goathead thorn in an empty lot, and spent the rest of the day patching his tire in the town square. Looking around at the empty storefronts and vacant warehouses, Marquand started to hatch an idea.
It was obvious that the town really needed an injection of something, Marquand said.
"It wasn’t squalid," he said. "It was just kind of ... without a lot of hope."
But Tieton wasn't always that way. We met Speed Hugil at Tieton’s only bar, Bootlegger’s Cove. At 5 p.m. on a Saturday, the tables were nearly full, and the counter was packed. In the kitchen, the owners were cooking up a pot roast.
Hugil, 65, has spent his whole life here. And he remembers the town's golden days.
"Tieton was a very popping town," he said. "There used to be a hardware store here, a theater … It’s kind of unreal."
Change came in the 1970s. As the nearby city of Yakima grew bigger, box stores with cheap products moved in. Tieton's local mom-and-pop stores began to dry up. Meanwhile, agribusiness and migrant labor undercut many of the farming jobs in town. And folks started moving away.
"The trend just continued until there really wasn’t much left," Tieton Mayor Stanley Hall explained. "We are a bedroom community. We sit out in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t grow your residential base, then you’re not going to grow at all."
Marquand saw potential in the town's depressed core. After his bike ride, he said he couldn’t stop thinking about giving the empty buildings new life. At the same time, his own publishing business was booming. He had a lot of creative friends in Seattle who wanted to expand, but they were priced out of the Seattle real estate market.
Late in the summer of 2005, he and Mike started bringing those friends to Tieton. Kerry Quint worked as a ship builder in Seattle for years, and he and Marquand have been buddies since college.
"He had a little Honda," Quint remembered, "And we would always drive around in that. Mike was in the passengers side. I kept thinking, 'Oh, have you thought about a condo in Maui?' But he was pretty adamant about this."
Marquand had his eye on an old apple-packing warehouse that had been standing empty for more than a decade. Quint remembers the day, well before mobile phones were ubiquitous, when Marquand tracked down a phone number and made that first call.
"Ed was standing in the park on top of a picnic table with his antenna in his hand trying to whale the deal out of this guy in California for this defunct old warehouse," Quint said.
Marquand also bought a second warehouse, an old church, a number of empty storefronts, some houses, a vacant lot — nine properties in all, and a sizeable chunk of the downtown. Costs totaled between $4-5 million.
So, did Marquand ever have a moment of hesitation or panic?
"Many, many moments!" he said with a smile. "But if your gut tells you you need to do something, jump in with both feet and figure it out."
Late that summer and into the fall, Marquand and his creative cohort developed a plan to convert a smaller warehouse into 14 live-work lofts to offer for sale to creatives. They started calling the project "Mighty Tieton." Other properties were transformed into artist studios, administrative headquarters, vacation rentals and event spaces.
But not everyone in town was so excited about the new developments.
Jackie Williams lost her job at the general store, and was selling handmade jewelry with her high-school-aged daughter.
"It was a little confusing at first," she said. "Because we didn’t know what was coming in or who was coming in. It was the talk, you know the gossip thing. As it is in really a lot of small towns, something comes in that’s different or changed, people don’t like it."
Mayor Hall picked up on that feeling too.
"I think some people were resentful of the fact that Seattleites were taking over the town," he said.
The folks behind Mighty Tieton were sensitive to those feelings. Quint said the group tried not to be the big city guys with the big ideas.
"That opens you up to a lot of failure," he said.
It’s been nearly a decade since Quint first visited. Now he and his wife call Tieton home. They run a print shop called Goathead Press out of Mighty Tieton. He also works on the Tieton Economic Development Committee. It’s a city-run organization that does projects for the community — they built a soccer field and a series of walking trails. Now they’re working on getting a basketball court built. One group of Mighty Tieton workers joined the local Lions Club. A few others teamed up with leaders in the Latino community to start a Dia de Los Muertos celebration.
Teaming up with those local leaders, Marquand, said, has been critical. "We could be here for decades and we’re still going to be seen as newcomers."
These days, locals are beginning to embrace Mighty Tieton. Mayor Hall estimated that the organization has created about 17 jobs. That might sound like a drop in the bucket, but relative to Tieton’s population, it’s actually substantial. Marquand's purchases have also added property tax to the town's coffers. But Hall said that, so far, the biggest economic impact has been tourism.
"They have put us on the map, where before no one knew where Tieton was, or anything about Tieton."