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Justin Cox works at Creative Ice in Kent on cutting large ice cubes for specialty cocktails.Seattle is growing like crazy. But it’s not the only place in our region that’s taking off. KUOW’s Region of Boom team is looking at the impact of Seattle’s growth on communities within a commuting range of about an hour away to see how they are adapting to the pressures of growth.The Kent Valley — Renton, Kent and Auburn — is the biggest manufacturing center in the state and the biggest distribution center north of Los Angeles. We’ll be turning to other communities in the coming months. Have a story for us? Or want to let us know where to go next?00000181-fa79-da89-a38d-fb7f2bd20001

Think Seattle business is booming? Welcome to Kent

Justin Cox and Matt Andersen work at Creative Ice in Kent, Washington.
KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott
Justin Cox and Matt Andersen work at Creative Ice in Kent, Washington.

When you think about the Puget Sound Region’s boom, where do you think it’s coming from? Many people would answer Amazon, in South Lake Union. Or the Eastside, with its band of glittering tech companies. 

Few people would think of the Kent Valley, but there too a boom is underway.

The Kent Valley runs from Renton at the foot of Lake Washington, through Kent and past Auburn. Besides the Green River, which meanders through the valley, its main feature is its canyons of warehouses. It’s the second largest distribution zone on the West Coast and has been for a long time.

But demand for warehouse space has been exploding. Land prices are up and vacancy rates are down. NAI Puget Sound Properties reported that last year was the "greatest year the Kent Valley has ever seen."

All of the economic indicators were “off the charts.”

The reason is Amazon, and not simply because of the company’s vast warehouse complex in Kent; it’s the fact that the company has set a new standard: same-day delivery.

"The demand has increased for the ability to locate your warehouses close to your consumers so you can offer that," said Steve Balaski, business development manager at the Northwest Seaport Alliance. 

But distribution warehouses aren't the big jobs engines of the Kent Valley, the way Amazon has become the big jobs engine of Seattle. 

Doug Lein of the City of Auburn pointed out that out on a recent tour of a large distribution company. 

"You can see in there — all that product and what have you got? You've got three people in there working," he said.

Warehouses don't create a lot of great jobs. They don't even bring in sales taxes.

Manufacturers like Creative Ice in Kent, however, do create jobs.

Creative Ice operates out of a building anonymously named Q, where Steve Cox and his small team set about the day’s business.

"This is ice cube morning," Cox announced on a Tuesday as two of his employees hauled a giant block of ice toward a formidable-looking saw. The saw proceeded to cut slices of ice, then bars of ice and finally perfectly clear ice cubes.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Justin Cox works on cutting large ice cubes for specialty cocktails at Creative Ice in Kent, Washington.", "fid": "135251", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201704/RKA-ice-giphyblock.gif", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]In the afternoon the work will shift to the sculpturing that drew Cox to the business in the first place, a talent he discovered after graduating culinary school and working at a hotel.

Around Easter they had lots of bunnies to make with little backpacks and baskets. The bigger sculptures head to the weddings and casinos and the parties in our boomtown.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Hearts are a popular design for weddings. The sculpture is cut by a machine in about 20 minutes. It will last for six-eight hours. Justin Cox controls the design with a computer program.", "fid": "135252", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201704/RKA-ice-hearts.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]Creative Ice is in Kent because it's smack in the middle of Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue — as the delivery truck drives. Cox said there are other important benefits: He can buy spare parts for his saw from the neighbors.

"I found it a half mile away,” he said. “I went in and got it right off the shelf. That doesn't happen in most places."

Opportunities to expand are here too.

"If we wanted to get into food service, all the food service distribution warehouses are in this valley. All the liquor distribution houses are right here," he said

[asset-images[{"caption": "Steve Cox (right) plans to turn over Creative Ice to his son, Justin Cox in a few years, making it a second-generation business.", "fid": "135253", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201704/RKA-ice-coxportrait.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]And though Creative Ice doesn’t need more than a truck to get its product to market, there are many businesses here with a reach that extends farther. For them, there are the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma and the international airport. They’re all only 10 to 15 miles away.

“It’s the biggest industry that nobody’s ever heard of,” said Balaski of the Ports Alliance. “It affects everybody but you never see it.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Gloves dry in the Creative Ice shop. The thick black gloves are also used by Alaska fishermen, according to Justin Cox. But he said they stopped making the black, so the shop switched to blue. The orange gloves are cheaper and are used by the 'new guys'.", "fid": "135254", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201704/RKA-ice-gloves.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]