More than four years ago, the congregation of First Baptist Church gathered one last time in its century-old building in downtown Yakima.

As of today, the former church houses a different kind of community — Fulcrum Yakima, a business incubator group, has taken over the building at 515 E. Yakima Ave.

It’s another boost for the far east side of downtown Yakima, which had primarily been home to several hotels and the Yakima Convention Center.

Roger Wilson, who also owns the First Baptist church building, recently announced that Starbucks would be opening at the former Greyhound bus depot at 602 E. Yakima Ave., kitty-corner to the First Baptist building.

Both developments will benefit the Yakima Convention Center, which is undergoing an expansion of its own, said John Cooper, president of Yakima Valley Tourism, which operates the convention center and oversees conference recruiting efforts.

The Starbucks and Fulcrum developments are between the downtown core and the convention center, which will help link the two areas, Cooper said.

“We’re excited to see additional activity occurring along the boulevard connecting this area, the hospitality area, with the city center,” he said.

Finding a home

The church provides a new home for Fulcrum’s growing community. When the group formed a year ago, it had its eyes set on developing a mixed-use space at the former Liquidation World building on North Third Street.

But the group grew much faster than expected, and the organization realized it couldn’t wait much longer for its own space.

“We wanted to keep growing and engaging the momentum and response we were getting for Fulcrum,” said Chelann Watt, Fulcrum’s executive director.

Fulcrum aims to help residents develop ideas that could boost the Yakima Valley economy, particularly in food and agricultural technology.

It’s developed the concept through monthly fireside chats with key figures in the Yakima Valley business community and twice-monthly gatherings to discuss innovations and business developments locally and around the world.

These chats were held in various venues, such as coffee shops and restaurants. This summer, the organization’s board decided that Fulcrum was ready to have a place where it could further cultivate the collaborative community it’s developed over the last year.

Meanwhile, Wilson Commercial Properties has been renovating the First Baptis Church building and finishing apartments upstairs. Wilson purchased the building in 2015 and got it on the National Register of Historic Places a year later.

Shortly after deciding Fulcrum needed to find a building, Watt and the board heard about Wilson’s renovation of the church. Fulcrum reached an agreement with Wilson in mid-September.

Fulcrum would not only lease the public spaces, but also serve as the manager for the event spaces at both the First Baptist Church and Le Chateau, another event space in downtown Yakima.

Wilson, meanwhile, would continue managing the upstairs apartments.

Wilson said he was drawn by Fulcrum’s concept and by the track record of people involved in the organization, including Watt, who had co-owned a juice bar, produced a podcast about young entrepreneurs and written a book aimed at millennials.

“It’s good for the community, (Fulcrum’s) concept and what they want to do — develop products for the ag industry and try to keep younger people here in Yakima,” Wilson said. “And create a space for entrepreneurs.”

The First Baptist Church building will house what Watt and Fulcrum call its Phase 1 Innovation Center. It will serve as a smaller version of the center it wants to develop at the larger Liquidation World building in a few years.

“We’re providing the Fulcrum model on a smaller scale with 10,000 to 15,000 feet of space versus 50,000 (at the Liquidation World building),” Watt said.

The center will have an event center and “learning theater” in the church’s former sanctuary, office spaces and spaces for a lounge and a restaurant or eatery.

The goal is constant activity in the building, either from Fulcrum or other community organizations.

“We want this space to be alive,” Watt said.

Linking downtown areas

Cooper, of Yakima Valley Tourism, says the changes will link the convention center with the rest of the downtown core.

“It gives a sense of community, and it adds to the critical mass,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cooper is now accepting bids for an 18,000-square-foot expansion of the Yakima Convention Center. The center, whose last major space expansion was in 2002, has lost convention business due to conferences and other events outgrowing it.

The Fulcrum innovation center will be an excellent complement to the Yakima Convention Center, Cooper said, especially since it will provide additional event and meeting space nearby.

“Having an additional event venue that close can be helpful for those occasional, very large groups that need (more) space,” Cooper said.

One such group is the Washington Music Educators Association, which often books additional space near the convention center to serve as extra rehearsal and concert space.

Watt said she’s looking forward to working together with the Yakima Convention Center, which could mean anything from sending conference-goers to a restaurant or eatery operating at the innovation center to hosting a banquet or other event for a conference that is primarily at the Convention Center.

“We hope to develop those strategic relationships,” she said.

Work on the Fulcrum Innovation Center will be done in the coming months. As a result, the organization decided to cancel its Thing Big Festival, a weekend-long conference on agricultural innovations, so it could focus on getting the new space ready, Watt said.

“For this year, our focus is making the Phase 1 space the best quality and best version it can be for the community,” she said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo captions in this story have been changed to correct Chelann Watt's last name.

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang