SEDRO-WOOLLEY — The city of Sedro-Woolley, long seen as a sleepy former logging town, is reinventing itself.
Throughout the city, dirt has been smoothed to make way for new construction. Signs reading "Now leasing," "Coming soon" and "Construction in progress" are posted on various properties.
Over the past several years, the city has seen an influx of new and revamped businesses. It has also made progress in redeveloping the former Northern State Hospital as the Sedro-Woolley Innovation for Tomorrow (SWIFT) Center, seen an increase in housing developments with an emphasis on multifamily units, and made more investments in infrastructure and public services.
Now, city staff and officials said a new grocery store and several other businesses may be opening soon.
With those developments, the city that calls itself the "Gateway to the North Cascades" is experiencing a growth spurt.
"What I have seen happen, especially over the last two years, is a much more vibrant community evolving," Sedro-Woolley Mayor Julia Johnson said. "We're having businesses move in and open stores — and unique stores offering things that are special."
Johnson, who grew up in Sedro-Woolley, has seen her city change before — but not for the better.
"It was kind of like this trifecta: Northern State (Hospital) closed, Skagit Steel started to close and lay people off and the logging industry hit a slump," Johnson said. "We went from a very vibrant community to a community that was really just hanging on for dear life."
Now the tide is turning.
"There is renewed energy; there is renewed excitement," Johnson said.
Since 2013, the city has seen an increase in housing developments including an uptick in multifamiy housing such as townhomes, apartments and live-work units.
The idea of live-work units comes from a time when much housing in small-town America was offered above shops and saloons.
Sedro-Woolley Planning and Development Director John Coleman said live-work units today are different in that the people who own the street-level businesses live in the housing units above them, and the two spaces are connected.
Sedro-Woolley saw its first live-work units take shape last year across the street from City Hall at a development called Abbott's Alley.
"What a great concept that is," said Sedro-Woolley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Pola Kelley, who is also a city councilwoman. "I'm just thrilled with what I see downtown these days."
Coleman said more housing is hitting the market now as construction wraps up on townhouses in several areas.
And more is on the horizon.
One developer is finalizing plans to build seven houses on Sapp Road, while another has asked the city to annex land to the north on Highway 9 where housing could eventually accommodate 190 residents.
"We're getting really excited to break ground and get more homes for sale here in Sedro-Woolley," BYK Construction's Tim Woodmansee, who is working on the Sapp Road development, said during a January City Council meeting.
Coleman said another developer is planning to build 63 homes on East Jones Road, and another is considering building an apartment complex in the southwest portion of the city.
While construction of new residences has returned to numbers that were common before the economic downturn of 2008, the growth of multifamily housing in recent years is significant.
"It's really started to take off," Coleman said.
After going several years without receiving permit applications for multifamily housing, the city has since 2013 received permits for about 160 units. Coleman said that includes townhomes set for construction this year on Township Street, as well as units located in the Downtown 48 apartment building BYK Construction opened to residents in January 2018.
BYK co-founder and President Paul Woodmansee said those units filled up within two months of opening, and about 80 percent of the tenants have recently renewed their leases.
The city planning commission is now considering creating a new zoning rule that would allow for more residences in an area primarily designated for commercial uses.
The urban village overlay zone was first considered before the economic downturn slowed development, according to city documents. The idea is to to allow construction of more apartments above ground floor storefronts or live-work units as part of larger, primarily commercial, developments.
"The goal of an urban village is to create a pedestrian-oriented, village-like area that allows for people to live, work and recreate in one area," a September 2018 planning commission memo states.
The overlay zone is being considered for a 40-acre area north of Highway 20 and west of Trail Road.
So far, Sedro-Woolley LLC, envisions creating an urban village in that area, according to city documents.
Coleman said the planning commission is still reviewing the idea of an overlay zone, which would require City Council approval.
Business growth is happening downtown, along Highway 20 and in other pockets of the city.
The city is home to Sedron Technologies — formerly Janicki Bioenergy — and is seeing the nonprofit Sedro-Woolley Downtown Association get its footing after being established last year.
Kelley said she's excited about the transformation unfolding, particularly downtown.
"From both the chamber side and the City Council side, what I see is that the evolution downtown is to a much more interesting, for lack of a better word, downtown area," she said.
Kelley highlighted new and improved businesses that have joined the downtown scene since the Woolley Market first opened its doors in the old J.C. Penney building about five years ago. They include the Liberty Bistro, Local 20 Taproom, Primal Coffee, Bottorff's & Company, as well as recent additions to other areas including a new bank and an automotive insurance office.
"We don't try to be Burlington with box stores or that kind of thing," Kelley said. "We find what works really well here in Sedro-Woolley is that which is unique or really authentic."
That emphasis on the unique has helped businesses thrive, from antiques and clothing store Shelley's Shack to Iron Mountain Bar & Grill, which offers homemade soups.
"They took over an old bar that was just kind of tacky and old and rundown, redid it inside completely ... and their emphasis is more on food than on selling alcohol," Kelley said of Iron Mountain.
In addition to its housing projects, BYK Construction is working to reopen a grocery store in the former Marketplace Foods building on State Street. That grocery store closed about a decade ago.
Paul Woodmansee said the new grocery will include a deli intended to make the store a go-to lunch spot. The goal is to open in late summer or early fall.
Coleman and Kelley said a restaurant is also expected to open in the next year at the former bowling alley next to Hammer Heritage Square.
Meanwhile, the Sedro-Woolley Downtown Association that formed to support the city's core businesses, help drive tourism and encourage historic and cultural preservation is helping to encourage growth.
Executive Director Ian Larsen said the association, in collaboration with Leadership Skagit, is working with the owner of a property where a building burned down to create a mini business park with five about 10-by-12-foot kiosks.
Larsen said some community members have expressed interest in possibly opening ice cream, hot dog and computer repair stands there.
The interest in innovation and excitement for new projects is what prompted BYK Construction to move its offices from Mount Vernon to Sedro-Woolley in 2017, Paul Woodmansee said. The company wanted to be closer to the action.
"We're constantly looking in Sedro-Woolley to buy property that makes sense to develop," Woodmansee said.
In addition to businesses and housing, the city is working on projects to improve public spaces and to launch new events.
The city is planning to develop Olmsted Park adjacent to the SWIFT Center, Sedro-Woolley City Supervisor and Attorney Eron Berg said. It also partnered last year with Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group to develop property near Riverfront Park and is finishing plans to revamp its Winnie Houser Park & Playfields.
New events are on the way, too. Larsen said the downtown association is preparing to introduce at least two this year.
The first will come in April as an addition to the city's annual Woodfest. The downtown association is pairing performers from the Bellingham Circus Guild and other groups with downtown businesses to create the walkable "Greatest Sideshow in Woolley."
August will bring Woolley Western Days, which will transform parts of downtown into old-time saloons, homesteads and more.
"We're turning this whole downtown into a western theme," Larsen said. "We're going to be kind of in character and have all kinds of activities."
With so much in store in the coming year, growth in Sedro-Woolley isn't expected to slow.
"The town is going to develop, and it's going to grow," Johnson said.