SNOQUALMIE PASS — Pop quiz: Where is the visitor center at Snoqualmie Pass? If you guessed brewery and taproom Dru Bru, well, you wouldn’t be the first.
“I’d get calls at Dru Bru all the time: Is it snowing right now? Is this trail open right now?” said former Dru Bru employee Zac Olson. “People are always looking for a visitor center up here.”
There is an official visitor’s center: The U.S. Forest Service maintains one in a two-story building with white clapboard siding and a blue sloped roof. But blink and you’ll miss the unassuming structure on Highway 906, the main road serving the Summit at Snoqualmie. What’s more, the building has been closed to the public since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
All that is about to change come early January, when evolution Projects, the real estate development arm of Seattle-based outdoor retailer evo, opens Firehouse. Just across the street from the former visitor center, the company founded by University of Washington graduate Bryce Phillips has pumped $2.5 million into the renovation of a century-old, asbestos-riddled former fire station to transform it into a new “front porch” for the heavily trafficked recreation destination.
When you walk into Firehouse once it flings open its doors early in the new year, you’ll be greeted by a spruced-up home for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, welcoming visitors under 100-year-old wooden beams. To your left, a 40-foot black-and-white fine art photograph of Chair Peak by North Bend photographer Scott Rinkenberg will frame a satellite outpost of evo, the popular outdoor gear store in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. To your right, Laconia Market will serve as the pass’s new one-stop cafe and general store. Upstairs, Pass Life Workspace will offer a state-of-the-art coworking space with mountain views, showers and a yoga room. (Olson, formerly of Dru Bru, is now the coworking space’s new general manager.)
With a plum location immediately to the left after eastbound travelers to Snoqualmie Pass take exit 52 on Interstate 90, Phillips has a vision for the building to serve as “a beacon for people who want to get outside.” Snoqualmie Pass is bursting at the seams, especially on winter weekends, and Phillips hopes that putting a range of amenities under one roof will help orient pass visitors no matter their recreation plan for the day.
“If you come on a weekend, everyone is trying to get outside: whether on a snowbank, at the ski hill or out ski touring,” Philips said during an October hard hat tour of the still-unfinished space. “It’s not a place for a certain slice of people; it’s a place that will resonate with all the visitors at the pass.”
Less experienced visitors can ask the Forest Service for information or sign up for a ranger-led snowshoe tour into Commonwealth Basin without having to cross treacherous Highway 906. “As long as there’s good snow on the ground, hopefully folks can put snowshoes on and start the trek right from the building,” said Martie Schramm with the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest’s Snoqualmie Ranger District.
The more experienced crowd may drop in to scan the Northwest Avalanche Center’s daily bulletin and pick up their freshly tuned skis from the evo satellite shop.
“How can we meet our customers where they play?” says Tommy Trause, evo Project’s head of hospitality, community marketing and ecosystem development, by way of explaining the new retail strategy. Expect a full rental fleet of skis, snowboards, backcountry kits, snowshoes, mountain bikes, and gravel bikes, but far less retail stock than the Fremont flagship (though plenty of in-a-pinch staples like replacements for lost mittens or fogged-over ski goggles). However, Phillips expects a lot of customers, especially those on the Eastside, will buy online and pickup in-store at evo’s new Firehouse location, a delivery method that now constitutes 40% of all online sales at evo.
Before or after your day playing outside, Laconia Market will be a welcome addition to the short roster of Snoqualmie Pass food and beverage destinations. Run by three full-time pass residents, the cafe and general store is named for the former railroad depot that used to stop right outside Firehouse. From breakfast burritos to curry lunch bowls and gourmet sandwiches to Northwest beer and wine, the cafe will be an all-day affair. Weekend visitors will find take-and-bake entrees and preselected ingredients with recipes to help overnighters prepare quick and easy meal plans. The Pass’s 300 full-time residents, a population that swells to 1,000 over the winter, will now have another grocery option instead of trekking 20-30 miles east or west to Cle Elum or North Bend, respectively.
“We want our store to be Narnia-esque,” said co-owner Kirsten Van Swearingen, whose grandfather Adi Hienzsch was Alpental’s first ski instructor. She described the market as a cross between the Mazama Store, Cone & Steiner, and a mini-PCC. Business partner Katie Marconi’s previous experience baking at Macrina and managing Cafe Fiori will also lend serious credentials to the coffee and pastry offerings.
Firehouse will surely create a new center of gravity at Snoqualmie Pass this winter, but it narrowly missed the wrecking ball. The previous tenant’s lease included a demolition clause because it was in such bad shape. evolution Projects rescued the building for $50,000, seeing an adaptive reuse opportunity similar to the company’s renovation of the Kolstrand Building in Ballard or evo’s own Fremont home.
“This is the only true, historic building on 906,” said Phillips. “We want to bring out its history, soul, and character so it can serve as a catalyst for people to connect and get outside together.”