Imagine getting this phone call from your sister:
“Are you sitting down?” she asks. “If not, you’d better.”
She then informs you that a recently deceased aunt left each of you more money than you ever dreamed of having.
What would you do?
Former public defender Jim Sheehan received such a call 17 years ago. Since then, he has launched the nonprofit Center for Justice, given money to various causes and rehabilitated several buildings on Main Avenue west of Division Street.
Before the end of the year, his latest project – Saranac Commons, 19 W. Main – will open with a bakery, a brew pub, a green products retailer and a Mediterranean-style restaurant.
During a recent interview in his energy-efficient home overlooking the Spokane River, Sheehan discussed why he has chosen to devote his wealth and energy to improving Spokane.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
S-R: What were your interests?
Sheehan: Whatever sport was in season. And in high school, girls, of course. I wasn’t very focused on choosing a career.
S-R: What was your first job?
Sheehan: My dad worked at the University of Washington and was always able to get me summer work at the university. I think he looked for the dirtiest jobs he could find. I started sweeping floors in a warehouse when I was 14.
S-R: Where did you go to college?
Sheehan: I was an undergraduate at Santa Clara, and earned my law degree at Gonzaga. That’s how I wound up in Spokane.
S-R: What was your first law-related job?
Sheehan: During my last year in law school I worked in the public defender’s office. After I passed the bar, I moved to Seattle for 10 years. I was a public defender there for six of those, then burned out on law and switched to team-teaching history, English and religion at Seattle Prep. I also coached cross-country and girls basketball. We moved back here in 1983, and I went to work in the public defender’s office.
S-R: Was there a moment or event that changed your life?
Sheehan: Certainly inheriting money changed the material part of my life. But what changed the way I looked at things was when I began meditating and going to Zen and Christian contemplative retreats in 1983. That’s when I began to be more connected with myself and everyone else.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Sheehan: Yes – a Zen roshi and Catholic priest named Pat Hawk.
S-R: What lesson stuck with you?
Sheehan: That we’re all one. We’re all the same.
S-R: You learned of your inheritance in late 1997. When did you leave the public defender’s office?
Sheehan: In January 1998.
S-R: Is that when you became a philanthropist?
Sheehan: No. I took a year to figure out what I wanted to do. If I were a plumber, I probably would have started a nonprofit plumbing firm. But I was a lawyer, so I started a nonprofit law firm, and it took me another year to get that set up.
S-R: Who were your initial clients?
Sheehan: We let it be known that we would take anyone who had issues and felt they lacked access to the system.
S-R: How did the inheritance affect your life?
Sheehan: I didn’t have to worry about financial things anymore, and my two kids could go to whatever college they want to. But I’m not sure it’s done that much in other areas. My partner, Mary, and I live pretty simply, although we have a Tesla (electric car), which is pretty exciting. One of the things that happens to people who get money like I did, without knowing it’s coming, is they discover it’s not a panacea. Your problems don’t disappear. They’re just different.
S-R: Do you get a lot of requests for financial assistance?
Sheehan: All the time.
S-R: How do you respond?
Sheehan: I listen to all of them and try to weigh what to do and why. I like to see whatever money I give away go to enhance, develop or in some other way improve community. Almost all of my philanthropy is local.
S-R: What are you most proud of?
Sheehan: The first block of West Main. That whole area is vibrant and alive, and demonstrates what can happen with communal thought and intentional development.
S-R: You could afford to live anywhere in the world. Why did you decide to stay in Spokane?
Sheehan: It’s my home. I helped raise my kids here. It’s not necessarily a glamorous place, but I truly believe that cultural ills can only be solved locally, so that’s what I’m trying to do.
S-R: What’s the best thing about Spokane?
Sheehan: The people. I have a great group of friends, and I’m comfortable here.
S-R: What does Spokane need the most?
Sheehan: A vision, and the political will to change things that are so inbred that we won’t consider making changes.
S-R: Such as?
Sheehan: The downtown area needs a total face-lift.
S-R: If you were in charge, what would you change?
Sheehan: I would close several streets and make them more pedestrian-friendly. I would certainly close Main from Monroe to the university district, although Stevens, Browne, Division and Washington would still be through streets. And I’d probably close Riverside.
S-R: What city our size works well?
Sheehan: I actually think Spokane is doing OK. I came here in 1969, and the changes since then have been dramatic. Portland is bigger than we are, but I think they’re doing well. And Seattle has done some good things.
S-R: The real estate projects you’ve undertaken have been driven by your community-building philosophy. Have they also been good investments?
Sheehan: Yes, really good investments if you look at the triple bottom line – economic, environmental and social. I’m not concerned about instant payback. For instance, after years our solar panels are close to being paid off, and once they are we’ll get some financial return.
S-R: Is Walt Worthy’s new hotel good for your nearby properties?
Sheehan: (laugh) Mary says, “Be careful what you say sometimes, Jim.” Architecturally, I don’t particularly like what I’ve seen so far. Our culture has lost its sense of aesthetics. And I’m a little concerned about building a giant structure to bring people into the community rather than having people in the community being the first ones we consider.
S-R: Do the skills you learned as an attorney help you in your role as philanthropist?
Sheehan: Absolutely. Just knowing how to find the law has been really helpful in philanthropy and development.
S-R: Did the recession affect your philanthropy?
Sheehan: Yes. It made me more cautious. But I’m through that now.
S-R: Are you at risk of ever running out of money.
S-R: What are you good at?
Sheehan: I’m a pretty good chipper and putter, actually.
S-R: Metaphorically or literally?
Sheehan: Probably both.
S-R: What are you not so good at?
Sheehan: Saying no, especially to people I know well.
S-R: What’s been the biggest surprise since inheriting wealth?
Sheehan: How long it takes to build things. I’ve sworn, “This is my last project,” but that was three or four projects ago.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who suddenly comes into a lot of money?
Sheehan: Sit on it at first and figure out what you want to do. And be aware that it has to be shared. Otherwise, it’s debilitating.
S-R: What challenges lie ahead?
Sheehan: Breaking 80.
S-R: In age?
Sheehan: No, in golf.
This interview was edited and condensed.