Icons Harlan Douglass: Constructing a path to success
In 60-plus years of developing, Douglass built massive portfolioFebruary 28th, 2019
Spokane real estate magnate Harlan Douglass has been letting up on the reins a bit over the last five years, but he hasn’t exactly gotten off the horse.
“I show up here all the time,” he says from a conference room at the Douglass Properties corporate office, at 815 E. Rosewood Ave., on the North Side.
Although he’s handed some day-to-day operations to other managers, he adds, “I decide what we’re going to build and when we’re going to build, what subs we’re going to use.”
Current projects include a $1.4 million multitenant office-warehouse building on the block north of the headquarters; $6 million Lyons Business Park, also on the North Side; the $4 million Market Street Storage complex at the site of the former Mann Center, in Hillyard; and the $9.3 million, 126-unit Sprague Apartments, in Spokane Valley.
During his 60-plus years as a developer, Douglass has assembled a real estate empire that includes owning, constructing, and leasing over 250 commercial buildings, about 2,000 apartment units, and several self-storage complexes across seven states.
Looking back on his developments, those that come to the top of his mind here include the Southgate Center shopping center, built in 1980, at 44th and Regal, on a then largely undeveloped area of the upper South Hill, where he says the initial tenants were Spokane’s first Albertson’s supermarket and a PayLess drug store.
“There just wasn’t anything there,” he says.
He also claims to have developed buildings that were the first to bring 7-Eleven, Taco Time, Taco Bell, and Radio Shack outlets to the Spokane market.
Douglass is perennially among the top property taxpayers in Spokane County, behind only Avista Corp. and Kaiser Aluminum Washington.
His tax bill in 2017 was $3.1 million on 40 properties.
He says however, that doesn’t count his holdings under other corporate names, which might put him higher than No. 3.
For example, he says, “We’re building 400 doors out in Wandermere. That’s under a different name.”
Douglass is listed with the Washington state Department of Revenue as the governing person in more than 20 businesses.
He also owns developments he constructed in Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Utah, California, and South Dakota.
Despite being one of the most prominent business tycoons in Spokane County, Douglass has only spoken to the Journal one other time in the last dozen years or so.
“Maybe it was when I was in jail,” he jokes, perhaps referring to the night he spent in custody in 2015 following a courthouse altercation with an opposing lawyer in a civil action.
Douglass makes no apologies for his often adversarial relationship with the Spokane city government and others.
At one point in 2003, he posted an electronic sign on the West Side warning Seattleites not to expect a business-friendly climate in Spokane.
He claims there’s been times when he’s gone to the city to apply for building permits and was met by four or five people in the planning and building department.
“I was pretty proud of myself that they had to bring that many people,” he says. “They’ve all got an education. I come from the school of hard knocks, and the knocks are from them.”
He further boasts, “They sued me 13 times. I won 12 1/2 times.”
Douglass development proposals have sometimes been met with strong neighborhood opposition and ultimately withdrawn, including a Walmart proposed on the South Hill, and a massive apartment complex planned in the Indian Trail area.
Commercial property manager Deanna Malcom, who has worked at Douglass Properties for 11 years, says there’s much more to Douglass than his reputation as a tough businessman.
“I get to see all the good he does,” she says. “He’s visionary. He’s able to see things in new ways all the time.”
Douglass is always more than willing to share what he’s learned with those around him, she says.
“He’s always trying to teach you a lesson and trying to get you to see something different,” Malcom says.
That innovative thinking motivates the whole office, she claims.
“We’re trying to get everyone to think like that,” Malcom says.
Douglass graduated from Rogers High School in 1956 and attended Washington State College that fall.
He soon discovered he didn’t like college. He was always interested in construction, having worked for his father Harold Douglass, installing forms for concrete foundations.
That work exposed him to other builders.
“Sometimes, the (project) owner and my dad would be talking, and I would be a foot or two behind them, listening,” he says.
Douglass got to know contractor Eldon Taylor and his son Bob Taylor, and Vern Ziegler, who was a homebuilder before establishing Spokane-based Ziegler Lumber Co.
“They helped me with cost breakdowns and subcontractors,” he says.
Douglass started building and selling homes in 1957.
Flush with cash from selling houses, he turned to buying property at courthouse auctions.
Malcom says Douglass started buying properties along Division Street “and then all over.”
Douglass is well known for holding patiently onto most all property he buys, she says.
“Some of that property he picked up back in the day, he didn’t know what to do with,” Malcom says. “He’s had some of that property since the ‘60s. Now we’re building apartments on them.”
Early in his career, Douglass also established lasting business ties with David Heerensperger, who in 1959 founded Eagle Hardware & Electric Inc., in Spokane, which 10 years later merged with the Kent, Wash.-based Pay ‘n Pak home improvement chain. Heerensperger left Pay ‘n Pak to form Eagle Hardware & Garden in 1989.
“We built the first Eagle Hardware in Spokane,” says Douglass, who was on the Eagle Hardware board and was one of the company’s largest shareholders until it was acquired by Mooresville, N.C.-based Lowes Cos. home improvement chain in a $1 billion stock swap in 1999. In all, Douglass says he erected and leased 17 commercial buildings to Heerensperger-led companies over the years. Heerensperger, who also was a pioneer in hydroplane racing and more recently well-respected in the horse-racing community, died Dec. 2.
Douglass also has served as a director of several companies, including on the boards of the Bank of Spokane, First American Title of Spokane, and Inland Northwest Bank.
Douglass met his wife, Maxine, on a blind date set up by Vern and Mary Ziegler in the spring of 1959.
“It was on a bowling night and she beat me at bowling,” Douglass says. “She was quite an athlete.”
They raised three children: daughter Stacey Boies and sons Harley Douglass and Lanzce Douglass, all of whom are involved in separate construction and development companies.
Douglass recalls a time when the children were old enough to go on the road that he took turns bringing them on business trips.
“I would try to bid on post offices in the spring,” he says. “One year, I had three or four post offices to build. I would take the kids with me.”
In all, Douglass built more than 70 post offices and still owns 58 of them, Malcom says.
After his development endeavors were well established, Douglass took up distance running and endurance events, competing in marathons and triathlons. He even qualified to participate in the Ironman world championships in Hawaii one year, although he was injured in a bicycle crash in training there and was hospitalized several days, missing the event.
Maxine Douglass, who worked beside Douglass in the growing real estate business, was an accomplished athlete and competed on a national level in softball, he says. She passed away on their 57th wedding anniversary, in 2016.
In the Inland Northwest, Douglass has supported and sponsored local sports teams at all levels, ranging from child dance troupes to university athletics, including backing elite Hoopfest teams, in Spokane.
Douglass, whose business empire has outlasted many of the companies that he has built for, says he doesn’t know what the future holds for his real estate, construction, and leasing operations.
“I definitely want it to live on,” he says.
He’s not ready to let go of the reins yet though, he says, adding, “I’m only 81.”