Photo by Jose Trujillo

The Holdouts

The South Lake Union Shop That Held Its Ground and Reaped the Rewards

Through a slow start, a well-funded landgrab, and disruptive development, Athletic Awards fought for its place in the neighborhood.

When Loren Holmes set up shop in the old Marine Parts Northwest building in 1983, business wasn’t exactly booming. “We were selling antique furniture, we were selling Christmas trees, we were doing anything to keep going,” recalls Monty Holmes, who at the time was a manager in his father’s shop. But its main business, then as now, was athletic awards.

Loren, an engraver by trade, had been in the accolades business since 1949 when he started working in the trophies division of a Seattle sporting-goods firm. He would eventually become a part-owner there, teaching his son the trade while building a client list. When the company decided in the early ’80s that it wanted to focus on sports apparel, Loren split, taking with him the trophy business. He gave his business the no-nonsense name Athletic Awards and located it in a single-story 3,900-square-foot building in South Lake Union. He paid $288,000 for the property.

Now the shop stands out in a neighborhood of towering dark glass for its unapologetic yellow paint job, a marquee featuring charming dad jokes (“EVERYTHING BEGINS WITH E,” “TOM WAITS WHILE JEREMY IRONS”) and, looming over the entrance, the “World’s Largest Trophy Cup.” A Paul Bunyan-sized trinket constructed by Loren years ago, the trophy could be a fitting award for the the business. After weathering a massive land grab and the many headaches associated with the current building boom, Athletic Awards is one of the few, the proud, the remaining. That future wasn’t always a certainty.

Back in 1983, South Lake Union wasn’t exactly friendly to retail businesses. Surrounded by warehouses and light manufacturing, there was very little foot traffic for Loren’s shop. But Athletic Awards kept growing, bolstered by the company’s first computer—a cumbersome device in retrospect, but one that made mass production of custom jobs much easier.

“It was like flying the space shuttle,” Monty says. “You had an A drive and a B drive and these five-and-a-half-inch floppy discs.”

As the business became healthier, other retailers moved in throughout the late ’80s. Then in the early ’90s came a major threat in the form of a $111 million property-tax levy to fund a massive facelift for the neighborhood that would have displaced 130 businesses, including Athletic Awards, and replaced it with the Seattle Commons, a 61-acre park that would have stretched from downtown to Lake Union. Supporters included then-mayor Norm Rice and big-business interests led by Paul Allen, who loaned the city $20 million to buy the land that would eventually become a kind of “civic lawn” ringed by tech-oriented businesses, restaurants, and condos. Many businesses sold their land and got out, but not Athletic Awards, which helped lead the opposition. “It was us against the Commonistas,” recalls Monty, who was by then president of the company.

Despite raising a small fraction of the money amassed by the pro side, the opposition emerged victorious when the public killed the deal in two separate public votes in 1995 and ’96. It was a hard-fought victory for the confederacy of small businesses, but the seeds of redevelopment had been sown. Paul Allen took control of the 11.5 acres of land that Commons supporters had purchased with his loan and waited for Amazon to call.

In the past five years, as cranes moved in and the development boom took off, Monty has watched a number of his neighbors, most of them lease-holders, move out or close up. Because his family owns the property, Monty has no plans to leave the neighborhood. Still, Athletic Awards has faced new challenges, particularly in the past couple years as the construction has expanded to the business’s front door. “It really hurt our business because people couldn’t get to us,” Monty says. “You could not park in our parking lot, there were back hoes, and you had to take a gangplank to get into the front door. We hung in there and survived.”

But while the construction has created some headaches, it has also increased the value of the property, which was appraised at $3 million in 2015. The boom has also resulted in more business for Athletic Awards, which has since those early days diversified its offerings to include custom embroidery, promotional products, and apparel. Now it counts among its largest clients Microsoft, Google, and Amazon.

“If I would have to do business anywhere in the world, I would pick South Lake Union,” Monty says. “It’s a hub of major corporations throughout the world and we are very fortunate to be here.”

CORRECTION An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the president of Athletic Awards, Monty Holmes. We regret the error.

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