Tacoma-based developer George Heidgerken, 74, has a vision. Actually, he has several, and one resides in the center of Tacoma’s industrial district.
He owns the site of the former Abitibi mill on Chambers Creek, and Olympia Beer’s Old Brewhouse in Tumwater, and the Blue Heron Mill site overlooking Willamette Falls outside Portland. He once owned the former federal courthouse in downtown Tacoma, and several years ago he bought some of the assets of the bankrupt Milwaukee Road, including mineral rights, other rights and assorted properties across 13 Northern Tier states.
Through a partnership, Heidgerken now owns 22 acres that once contained Nalley Fine Foods in Nalley Valley.
Where Nalley’s once produced lines including pickles, mayonnaise, potato chips and more, now the product is cannabis.
Some of the land will be given to warehousing, what with the benefit of a railroad spur that bisects the property. Much of the remainder of the improved property will be leased to state-licensed marijuana growers and processors.
By scent, it’s clear that one tenant has already opened for business. By the sound of carpenters and electricians at work, it’s clear that other processors and growers have begun to improve their workspaces.
One city official believes that the land could be put to better use.
The six buildings on Heidgerken’s 22-acre site comprise more than 400,000 square feet, and the former Nalley’s headquarters building has been remodeled to suit 16 lease clients.
“I don’t smoke. I don’t do any of that stuff,” Heidgerken said during a recent site tour.
Married with six children, Heidgerken lives in Centralia and commutes to his Tacoma headquarters. He began his career in the grocery business in Eugene, Oregon, at 16, and later sold pizza in Fairbanks, Alaska.
“I learned real quick you can make a lot more money with your head than with your hands,” he said in a conference room papered with colorful depictions of his various projects.
“What you’re looking at is experience,” he said. “If you see a guy without a record, he hasn’t done much. The road to success is bumps and bruises.”
That record – along with some bumps and bruises – includes a short stint in the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, thanks to a conviction concerning the disposal of hazardous waste.
“I liked it,” Heidgerken said. “We had a big-screen TV, French pastry. I met some interesting bookkeepers and attorneys. I was in a bocce tournament – I was supposed to get out, and I asked if I could stay an extra day.”
No, he could not.
Heidgerken first heard of the Nalley property, he recalls, through a local Realtor.
“I have a lot of folks who bring in things all the time,” he said. “Somebody said (the property) was available. I was saying no.”
He was saying no until he realized he could earn more from cannabis growers and processors than from warehouse clients. Heidgerken also owns a 20,000-square-foot building on the Tacoma Tideflats that is leased to a licensed marijuana operation.
Heidgerken estimates he and his partners will have invested $15 million in the Nalley Valley operation, owned by a limited liability corporation under the name That Other Stuff.
That company is one of several LLCs Heidgerken is connected with, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Records with the Pierce County assessor-treasurer put the assessed value of the Nalley Valley property at $9,347,000.
Heidgerken’s criminal record does not preclude his involvement in the cannabis business. Growers, processors and retailers must meet certain criteria before being granted a license, but as Heidgerken said, “All I am is a landlord.”
He provides water, power, gas, sewer access, sprinklers, restrooms and some security. He charges $1.35 per square foot, plus 9 cents per foot for parking.
That price fits the area.
“That doesn’t seem to be too unreasonable,” said Tom Poole, vice president at Columbia Bank. “It doesn’t seem too far out of line.”
“We’re fully leased,” Heidgerken said. “I might have 30,000 square feet left.”
Heidgerken’s son, Brian, works at the site and estimates the tenants will support an average of 25 employees each, with activity on a seasonal basis determined by the rhythm of crop rotations.
“We need more job-intensive uses in our industrial district,” said Ricardo Noguera, city of Tacoma community and economic development director. “I would prefer to see an industrial user who would promote more jobs.”
Noguera notes that companies such as Bradken, which operates a foundry in Nalley Valley, “tend to pay the highest wages in the city, and that’s what we need to be growing.”
He is not opposed to That Other Stuff’s operation, he said. “What I’m trying to do is grow more retail and industrial, and create more jobs. The fear I’m having — I’m viewing marijuana as nurseries, with far fewer jobs per foot than with industrial.
“I do have a huge concern as it relates to what the marijuana industrial use is having on lease rates and the ability to attract manufacturing and traditional industrial jobs. We need those uses in this city. You get far fewer jobs from a nursery than you do with manufacturing. Typically those kinds of uses, nurseries, are not found in the heart of industrial districts. I’d prefer to have more Bradkens.”
Annette Roth, marketing and communications director at the Thurston Economic Development Council, has worked with Heidgerken concerning the Olympia Brewery property in Tumwater.
“Working with him has been great,” she said. “He’s got a great team. We have had a very pleasant working relationship. George has been a good partner.”
Paul Loveless, city administrator for the town of Steilacoom, is aware that Heidgerken owns the old Abitibi mill property near the mouth of Chambers Creek — plus the dam that contains the creek behind the estuary.
Asked to characterize Heidgerken’s relationship with the Chambers site and the town, Loveless said, “I can confirm that he owns the property. Nothing has been submitted to the town as far as a formal application.”
Nearing 75, Heidgerken perseveres.
“You don’t bake cookies if you don’t know the recipe,” he said.
Of any setbacks, roadblocks, lawsuits or other hurdles, he said, “These are all problems that can be solved with the right attitude.”
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535