High-tech tenant hopes to flourish at fort

Renovations couple with historic charm to attract new Silicon Valley firm

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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Kaare Hyde grazed his shoe across the refinished maple floors in the Artillery Barracks and smiled.

Hyde smiled at the quirks of craftsmanship in the wooden floor, which oddly switches from 2-inch-wide strips to 4-inch-wide planks seemingly without reason. The nearby stairs are built from ancient oak and fir.

Historical touches remain throughout the 1904 building, even as its two floors plus an attic are readied for a high-tech future. Once home to homesick Doughboys, the barracks is now stuffed with modern amenities such as motion-sensitive lights and highly efficient heating and cool units.

“The exciting part for me is that we finally have people in the building,” Hyde said.

Hyde, the facilities manager for the Fort Vancouver National Trust, spent a recent morning looking over the rehabilitation work. Soon the building will be a home to RealWear, a maker of wearable computers, and dozens of its employees.

Mayor Tim Leavitt announced the lease with the Silicon Valley company at his State of the City Address held in the building last month.

The announcement marked the arrival of a promising technology company to downtown Vancouver and another anchor to Vancouver Barracks, an historic site in the care of multiple government agencies who want it to sustain itself.

“Being able to bring online these commercial uses really allows us to attract more of these public tenants,” said Mike True, president and CEO of the trust.

Real deal

RealWear signed a letter of intent in late March, formalizing plans to occupy half of the 12,000-square-foot artillery barracks this spring. It expects to bring between 20 and 30 employees to start.

There isn’t an official move-in date and the company isn’t yet sure if it will ultimately make the Vancouver offices its headquarters or stay rooted at Milpitas, Calif.

RealWear executives had sought a new location somewhere cheaper than the San Francisco Bay area, CEO Andy Lowery said. They looked along Interstate 5 and, while considering Portland, glanced at Vancouver. When they started showing interest, he said a delegation of city officials and business leaders “rolled out the red carpet.”

“I feel like we’re Apple Computer or something deciding to relocate our company to Vancouver,” said Lowery. “It’s been an unbelievably welcoming experience.”

While not a household name like Apple, RealWear’s hardware has gained traction with its targeted customers — companies such as General Electric and Hewlett-Packard. Its products are designed to boost productivity for industrial workers with technology billed as “augmented reality.” Its flagship device, HMT-1, is a helmet-mounted display and microphone fixed in front of the user’s eye, linking field workers with faraway support staff who can illustrate procedures on a screen worn only millimeters from the user’s face.

“It’s an extremely slick way to collaborate,” said Lowery, whose career included stints with another wearable technology startup, Daqri, as well as defense contractor Raytheon.

At the Vancouver offices, RealWear will mostly employ people with backgrounds in engineering, Lowery said. Most manufacturing of HMT-1 and other RealWear products will occur in China.

The relocation also adds to the professional, scientific and technical services job sector in Clark County. The sector added 600 jobs — 6.9 percent — in 2016, according to the state Employment Security Department.

RealWear’s Vancouver offices could employ up to 100 more in the coming years, Lowery said. The 44-year-old military veteran seems more than happy with decision to locate here so far, saying Vancouver has a charm similar to Midwestern cities where he grew up.

“I’m definitely a Vancouver Kool-Aid drinker,” he said.

Silicon fort?

RealWear’s lease is the latest development in the multipronged endeavor to preserve and grow the use of Vancouver Barracks.

The site is currently managed by two agencies: its north and west portions are owned by the city of Vancouver and overseen by the nonprofit Fort Vancouver National Trust. The south and east portions are managed by the National Park Service, which took over from the U.S. Army in 2012.

Both agencies have made inroads to refurbish the buildings, some of which are more than a century old, and turn them into space for businesses and agencies. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest recently moved its headquarters into a two-story building near Officer’s Row that is managed by the Park Service.

With revenues from a recent sale of bonds, the trust has spent more than $8 million since February 2016 rehabilitating the Infantry Barracks, Quartermaster Storehouse, Dental Surgeon’s Office and the Artillery Barracks, where RealWear will be located.

In RealWear, the trust may have an attractive lure for new tenants. True said he also hopes to recruit food service companies and arts organizations.

“This is a huge milestone, having these buildings renovated and completed,” he said. “I think this will increase the amount of public use and activity.”

Still, the buildings will have to compete with spaces in downtown Vancouver and the upcoming Vancouver Waterfront.

Kristen Jontos, building manager of the east and south barracks revitalization for the National Park Service, said they believe the historic buildings will probably attract businesses with different cultures than a glassy high-rise might.

“I’m probably a little biased because I think these buildings are amazing,” she said. “I do think it’s a bit of a self-selecting process. Different people are going to want different things.”

Each of the pockets of growth within Vancouver and Clark County benefit each other, said Mike Bomar, executive director of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, a Vancouver-based organization tasked with recruiting businesses to the area.

“I’m really encouraged by it; I think it’s great,” Bomar said. “I think the more we can connect the very short distance between downtown and a really cool, historic district — the better off we’re going to be. It’s a huge asset and we’re excited about it.”