Peter Callaghan: Old Elks Lodge and Tacoma both need wealthy angels

peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.comDecember 29, 2013 

It was the summer of 2010 and, like many in the region and the nation, I was looking for some good news.

It came in the form of Mike McMenamin, an entrepreneur and visionary disguised as an aging hippie. With his brother Brian, McMenamin transformed a passion for making beer and a love of music into a chain of 55 popular venues throughout the Northwest.

Often adopting and adapting funky historic structures, the pair create community gathering places with 2,000 employees and many more satisfied customers. When they got involved in helping restore downtown Tacoma’s near-century old Elks Lodge, it seemed that the Beaux Arts box might finally be saved.

That summer, after showing local landmarks commissioners the early designs of Seattle architectural firm Ankrom Moisan, McMenamin talked glowingly about his love for the building and his plans to locate multiple restaurants and music venues inside.

His only discouraging words involved financing.

Banks were not “falling over themselves to give us money,” he said. “The timing is probably not perfect. But you’ve got to go with it. It has to be done.”

Times were bad enough that he was considering bringing in equity partners — investors — to be part of the project. To leaven the serious tone, however, he said: “It’s going to be really fun.”

Now, more than 31/2 years and several missed ground-breaking target dates later, the company admits it can’t find the last $6 million to $7 million to complete the $20 million financing. While still interested in Tacoma, the brothers have placed the Elks behind another project in Bothell.

As disappointing as the news is, it raises other issues that might be more distressing.

One is Tacoma’s apparent failure to shake a regional stigma. As John Dimmer, someone very familiar with venture capital in the region, told News Tribune business reporter Kathleen Cooper: “I think once you start getting south of SeaTac, the Seattle community starts raising an eyebrow and saying, really? … I think there probably is a negative bias.”

The bias seems Seattle-centered. The McMenamins from Portland don’t share in it. Neither does Illinois-based State Farm Insurance, nor the California investors interested in projects in the Stadium District and Proctor, nor the Bellingham hoteliers planning a project on the Foss Waterway.

But the bias does seem to infect people with money in Tacoma itself. McMenamins’ chief financial officer, Larry Dortmund, told Cooper he has met with four Tacoma-based investors, and all begged off. The city’s economic problems and litany of dashed hopes have created a risk-averse investment atmosphere. Most projects that have been completed have demanded city involvement in order to transfer the risk from the private to the public sector.

That the Elks restoration is delayed yet again will dampen other hoped-for investments on the north edge of downtown. The owners of troubled-and-vacant Old City Hall were certainly hoping for momentum from across the street. And talk of plans for the vacant lot on the other side of the recently renovated Spanish Steps from the Elks Lodge — and even for the old Winthrop Hotel — can’t help but be overshadowed by the news.

Meanwhile, the lodge itself stands empty but ready. I tagged along on a tour last week of the interior of the 1916 lodge designed by Edouard Frere Champney. The McMenamins have done a good job cleaning the interior, taking down temporary walls and ceilings, shoring up the roof and windows, and keeping the inside dry and secure.

The essence of the interior spaces is magnificent, especially the columned auditorium, the top-floor lodge hall and the swimming pool.

So the sturdy old Elks Lodge isn’t going anywhere. And nearly 50 years since the Elks moved to Center Street, it now has an exciting and profitable use lined up.

If only some local people with means had as much faith in the building and the city as the Portland-based McMenamins do.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 @CallaghanPeter

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