Visit most towns in the United States and you’ll notice a certain type of building. A building where just by looking at it you can feel the history of the surroundings. In your town it may be an old fire station or a bank, but in Olympia, Washington, that building is called the Steamplant. In a building that once kept the city warm, Native-owned production company Sky Bear Media is forging a new future as the new owners of the space.
From two film school graduates to a bustling production company with plans to expand, keep reading below to learn more about Sky Bear Media’s journey.
In 1946, the business district of Olympia, Washington took refuge from the cold and rainy Pacific Northwest winters from steam power diverted to the various downtown buildings. The squat, concrete building that funneled that steam and kept the downtown businesses warm, earned the local name, “The Steamplant.”
As steam became obsolete, the cavernous building nestled at 113 Thurston Ave NE took on various tenants that among many things milled textiles, sold antiques, and even hosted an arts commune.
In 2016, the Steamplant building was finally renovated and converted into a two-story industrial loft space, beautifully crafted, and thoughtfully upgraded, for modern tastes.
It’s at this time that Sky Bear Media Owner and CEO, Jeff Barehand, pressed his face up against the glass and marveled at the space. Barehand remembers, “I used to walk the streets in Olympia, peering in and out of spaces, yearning for a time when our growing company could afford a place of our own.” He decided that day, that someday, his small business would be able to lease a space in that same building, that he would earn that space.
In 2022, Barehand and his business partner and Co-Owner, Riley Gibson, did one better. They bought the building.
Launched in 2012, Sky Bear Media was formed from the serendipitous meeting of the two filmmakers. Both fresh out of film schools, they found each other via Craigslist, the only means of finding a film community in sleepy Olympia. Gibson posted an ad to which Barehand responded, and in one weekend they made their first short film together.
They continued to make a number of short films together but soon realized the independent film model was not sustainable. Other means would need to be pursued to make ends meet. “The business was formed so our wives wouldn’t think we were just hanging out making movies,” says Gibson, “and I guess it just kind of took off from there.”
Working from their homes and using whatever gear they could cobble together, and working day jobs to support the growing business, slowly but surely, the company grew. They reinvested into the business, making little income for many years. But word got around, and eventually they started to build a reliable client base in Indian Country.
“The big moment for us was partnering with the NCAIED team,” says Barehand. “It was amazing to get the encouragement of the National Center team. When they hired us to do the video work for their national conference, I guess we did well enough that they continued to hire us for every successive annual national conference since 2018.”As the “go-to” organization for Native business, the National Center for American Enterprise Development (NCAIED) continues to promote Tribal entrepreneurship across the country, and with their new Exports Program, across the globe.
Sky Bear Media’s partnership with NCAIED was critical in introducing them to John Shoraka, a former Small Business Administration employee and founder of Government Contract Pros, a consulting firm that trains small and minority-owned businesses to successfully contract with the federal government.
Through Shoraka’s workshops, Sky Bear learned about the SBA 7(a) loan and the unique opportunities that the SBA could provide to small, minority-owned firms like Sky Bear.
“Learning about the SBA program was key for us,” says Gibson, “I don’t think we could have closed this deal without it.”
It’s through the SBA loan program that Sky Bear was provided a lower down payment opportunity and was able to jump on the chance to buy the Steamplant Building. Barehand says, “The commercial market is growing in the South Sound. Expensive Seattle real estate is pushing more and more people down into the Olympia market. New builds are going up, it seems, every six months. The time is now to buy, and the SBA down payment assistance helped us seal the deal.”
Sky Bear Media now employs four employees and just recently added a medical plan. “To build a home in Olympia is a blessing, to compete with large firms in Seattle and Portland, is something I never imagined would be possible! It’s thanks to many who supported a small Native American-owned company,” says Barehand. “We want to grow where we are and build community where we are. We are not a large firm, but after ten years, we are still here. And that says something.”
From their bustling command with a cityscape view of the state capitol, Gibson muses, “This building gives us a foundation to grow from. I’m just really happy with how things worked out, and the partnerships we were able to make along the way. You really can’t do it alone.”
With an ever-increasing roster of employees, sub-contractors, and clients, and now a place to call home, Sky Bear stands poised for growth.
“I want to add communications services to Sky Bear, with PR for Indian Country, says Barehand, “We can write. We can persuade. And we understand Indian Country. You combine that with our amazing video production skills, and you have a one stop shop for Indian Country’s communication needs.”
Barehand used to press his face up against the glass. Now he is breaking glass and elevating Native entrepreneurship to the next level.
“It’s not over. I have not made it yet. Entrepreneurship requires constant attention. We swim, from project to project, client to client. You can’t stop swimming,” says Barehand.
Even a few years back, purchasing a building was unfathomable for Sky Bear Media. “We’ve come a really long way to get to this place, and looking back you can see those moments or turning points where everything changed for us, and it began with partnerships, people that gave us a chance, like Chris James, President and CEO of the National Center,” Gibson remembers. “We are grateful for everyone that believed in us,” he continues, “Because others believed in us, we believe in others. It’s how it works. Pay it forward and do your best to take care of your employees, your clients, and your community.”
The Steamplant Building no longer conducts steam, but the warmth still emanates from this small business that could, the video production company that reminds us that the small business drives our economy, sparks the imagination, and inspires us to believe that our next big dream is a possibility.