Two years ago, architect Blake Fisher walked away from his downtown Seattle job — and the downtown commute — and into the professional environment of his dreams. Now, Fisher drafts clients’ architectural plans in his second-story office in the seaside town of Edmonds. Just 12 miles north of Seattle, the historic downtown core includes theaters and performance venues, museums and galleries, restaurants and distilleries, art boutiques and public art.

“The cool art makes Edmonds feel like a good place to do business,” Fisher says. “Edmonds is a super-accessible and livable little town, tucked away from other suburbs,” he says. “It’s nice to not be in a business park. I could pay super-cheap rents, but I’d rather pay a little more to be part of Edmonds. It’s more marketable and attractive to clients, who love it down here. Edmonds is a unique place in our region.”

Edmonds has been undergoing changes for 20 years or so, with an acceleration in the past several years. When John Rankin first opened his jewelry business, J. Rankin Jewelers, in 1998 and moved to Edmonds, “the town was nicknamed ‘Deadmonds,’ and it was a retirement community,” Rankin says. “I thought I’d give the town two years, then move back to Seattle. Within five months, I fell in love with Edmonds.” He loved the town’s energy and potential, and waterside location — and his business has expanded alongside Edmonds’ growth.

Young professionals like Fisher are increasingly feeding the city’s inspired energy. “The younger folk drove the creativity, which exploded in the last few years,” Rankin says. Indeed, in the past few years, Edmonds has welcomed new restaurants, shops, businesses and even a new art museum. This autumn, the new Main Street Commons space will open in a renovated midcentury grocery store with multilevel dining, retail shops and live music.

Alisa Gardner, Red Twig Bakery and Cafe, Edmonds. (Matt Hulbert photo)

Changes accelerated when the Washington State Arts Commission chose Edmonds as Washington’s first Certified Creative District, in 2018. The designation recognized Edmonds’ commitment to arts and culture, including the city’s five-year enhancement program to grow the creative sector and jobs, increase public engagement, and drive capital improvements.

In 2017, the Washington State Legislature created the Creative District program to help communities develop attractive, resourceful places to live, visit, and work. These places and spaces attract visitors while growing entrepreneurial opportunities and creative jobs for software developers, photographers, writers, musicians, programmers, graphic designers and other creatives — as well as those working with and for them.

To qualify, nominees go through a rigorous process. The geographically defined districts must offer concentrated cultural and economic activity in an area that’s walkable or accessible by locals and visitors, while actively promoting local arts, culture and creativity. In essence, a physical destination where creativity thrives. 

Since 2018, 10 Washington cities have followed Edmonds with creative districts of their own.

Paul Lowell, Lowell’s Stained Glass Studio, Edmonds. (Matt Hulbert photo)

Creativity in action

“The creative district fits well for fine jewelers like us,” Rankin says. Clients come from Tacoma and Olympia, drawn by word-of-mouth and positive online reviews. “The views here are fantastic and inspiring. From my space, I look out at Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains and the beach,” Rankin says. That natural scenery inspires clients, too. Currently, Rankin is working on a ring that incorporates a wave and mountains at their kayaking client’s request.

Rankin, his wife, and two employees create jewelry on site and buy from other artisan jewelers. One employee specializes in turning dated gems (perhaps hidden away in a closet) into contemporary, wearable work. Every piece starts with a sketch, then a wax model, before becoming a fully formed ring, necklace, or set of earrings. A creative community provides fodder for innovation, and allows Rankin to keep up with an ever-evolving jewelry market.

For Fisher, design requires a rapid absorption of client desires, building codes and local context. “Creativity is finding a beautiful solution through the process of iteration, gathering more information, in combination with what the code allows,” he says. Place impacts the creative work pipeline, too. For example, Edmonds property overlooking Puget Sound drives architectural requests, as owners hope to take advantage of views.

The market advantage of destination

Edmonds offers inventive businesses many ways to generate new ideas, solve problems and network with others — along with an appealing destination for customers or clients.

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When Fisher gets stuck on a design challenge, wandering downtown Edmonds is “restorative,” he says. Coffee in hand, he might stroll down to the waterfront just to watch the ferry leave at sunset. Or wander the historic core while on a business call. “At least once or twice a day, I walk around and decompress, and I’m ready to get back at it,” he says.  

Fisher often stops by a favorite café, brewery or restaurant, and boot up his laptop for a change of pace. Some epicurean visits have turned into collaborations, as well — Fisher designed a brewing production and tasting room for a local brewery. “There’s always a back-and-forth when you’re grabbing beers with friends here,” he says. “We help each other and root for each other.”

Edmonds feels like “Main Street, USA,” Fisher says — featuring a centralized, pedestrian-friendly street just minutes from the beach. Clients from as far as Eastern Washington jump at the chance to meet Fisher for late-afternoon design discussions over craft cocktails and appetizers. Afterward, they may go out for dinner. “It’s nice; Edmonds is this little getaway,” he says.

“It’s so nice to be able to refer someone to so many dining establishments,” Rankin agrees. Clients driving up from Tacoma can unwind at a local restaurant, after crafting an engagement ring. “It’s a friendly, positive town with a cool, hip undercurrent, due to younger business people moving in and setting up shop,” Rankin says.

The Edmonds Creative District is a traditional, walkable small-city downtown featuring a rich mix of arts, culture, creative-sector businesses, public gathering spaces, and historic structures — all on the shores of Puget Sound with panoramic views of the Olympic Mountains.