Fritz Wolff, the scion of a multibillion-dollar real estate empire founded in Spokane Valley 70 years ago by his grandfather, is spending his personal wealth in a way not seen before in Spokane to influence city elections, throwing his weight behind conservative causes and candidates, including mayoral hopeful Nadine Woodward.
Wolff, with his wife Katie, have contributed at least $211,000 in the last two years toward conservative groups and politicians that are sharply critical of how the city has been run in recent years and that have promised to make the city more amenable to business.
In the last week alone, the couple gave $26,000 to the Spokane Good Government Alliance, an independent political action committee, or PAC, and Michael Cathcart, who is running for Spokane City Council, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
The Wolffs have significantly bankrolled SGGA and account for the largest contributors to the group, with a combined $80,000. The group has so far only stumped for Woodward, spending tens of thousands of dollars on her behalf.
Altogether, the PAC has spent $150,000. That includes paying $86,000 to the Arizona-based Camelback Strategy Group for polling, research and hiring 25 people to go doorbelling and canvassing on Woodward’s behalf through its subsidiary, Grassroots Advocates. It also includes nearly $12,000 paid to a Seattle-based political operative named Jake Mayson for campaign management.
The money is part of a larger trend this election cycle, which has surpassed every other year on record for money spent by outside political organizations on Spokane city elections. So far, political committees have spent $688,000 – more than three times the previous record of $176,000.
Aside from the people and groups Wolff has contributed to – Woodward, Cathcart, the SGGA and Smart Reforms for a Better Spokane, another conservative PAC – still more groups are spending big to sway the election. The Washington Realtors PAC has spent nearly $200,000 in favor of Woodward’s candidacy, and the Citizens for Liberty and Labor spent more than $170,000 against her.
But no individual matches the spending of Wolff, who said his goal was to change the “anti-business” approach the city has taken.
“I love Spokane! I grew up here, my wife grew up here, and I’m raising my little family here,” he said in an email. “We care about the future of Spokane and believe it’s important to be active stewards of our community and its future. We also believe that good public policy and government is essential to our region’s economic vitality and the upward mobility of our citizens. After watching the direction a veto-proof, anti-business City Council is taking Spokane, we felt compelled, along with others, to organize an effort to help elect pro-business candidates this November.”
From optometry to Jet Skis
When Fritz Wolff graduated from Central Valley High School in 1995, he was more than your typical teenager. He was a competitive Jet Skier. He was “ranked seventh in expert slalom on the Budweiser Jet Ski Sports Tour, 10th overall and 12th in the world in the sports class,” according to an article in The Spokesman-Review. He was training on Arizona’s Lake Havasu, and was looking forward to hitting the promotional racing tour that December in Saudi Arabia, Germany and Spain.
“In the Middle East, Jet Skiing is like polo,” Wolff told the paper. “They fly in with $1 million in money, race, get into their helicopters and fly back to the country.”
Within three years he and his three older brothers – Jesse, Peter and Tom – were appointed to the family company’s board of directors. The Wolff Co. owned about than 2,800 rental units, mostly in the Spokane region, but things were about to change.
Nowadays, the Wolff Co. owns and operates more than 30,000 rental units in the nation, and has more than $4 billion in discretionary capital, according to its website. The company has built and bought apartment buildings from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Las Vegas. It developed condos abutting the Trump National Golf Course in Los Angeles, and built a $25.7 million, 256-unit complex south of Spokane Valley city limits on state Route 27 called Pine Valley Ranch.
When Fritz Wolff gained a leadership position in the company, it was still on the course set by its founder, his grandfather Alvin Wolff Sr.
Alvin was the son of optometrists who started their practice in Spokane in 1912, but he would not follow in their footsteps.
Alvin worked in grocery stores as a teenager. He West Valley High School and, after serving in the Army for four and a half years during World War II in Italy and Africa, came back to attend the law school at Gonzaga University. In 1949 with a $1,500 loan from his brother, a lawyer named Lionel, he founded the Alvin J. Wolff Co. at the age of 31.
He sold home after home and erected office buildings in the Spokane area, and it didn’t take long for him to reach the top of the real estate profession.
He was named Realtor of the Year by the Washington Association of Realtors in 1960 and 1967. On June 6, 1969, the local Board of Realtors observed Alvin J. Wolff Day, recognizing his recent appointment as vice president of the 93,000-member National Association of Real Estate Boards.
For much of the 1970s, he was treasurer of the 700,000-member National Association of Realtors, making him the third-ranking officer of that group. By this time, the company was in the charge of his son Alvin Wolff Jr., who had taken over in 1973. He, too, did well, selling more real estate in Spokane in 1978 than any other Realtor, with $14.2 million in transactions.
The next year, his company merged with the Tomlinson Agency Inc., making it “one of the largest, if not the largest, real estate firms in dollar volume in the Inland Empire,” according to an article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle. The Spokesman called the new firm “a force to be reckoned with.”
From 1,000 to 30,000 units
Under the junior Wolff, the company had a new drive. Instead of selling homes to people, it went big on apartment buildings, and the company began working a lot with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In 1980, the company reached the 1,000 unit mark, with the purchase of Cedar Village Apartments in Spokane.
In 1995, a shortage of affordable housing in Spokane was creating “a worst-case scenario in which property owners’ profits are shrinking and low-income residents can’t find a place to live,” Alvin Wolff Sr. told The Spokesman-Review. “We’ve entered an era where it’s not as easy to develop and certainly less attractive to buy.”
The same year, Wolff had a solution: get apartment residents to stay longer and “dissuade the tenant from wanting to move to a single-family home.”
“This is a strange industry,” he said. “It is the only industry I can think of that expects its customers to be temporary and fleeting.”
In 2000, the company, and the family, left Spokane and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, looking for a bigger city and warmer temperatures.
In 2001, the company had 5,000 multifamily units and, again, the paper reported on the region’s struggles to provide adequate housing. Wolff said the low vacancy rates had allowed landlords to raise rents by 8 to 10%.
“We’ve seen an increase over the last 12 months in rental rates, and we’ll see a significant jump again this year,” he said.
In 2004, the company had 10,000 units. The next year the Spokesman wrote a profile of the Wolff family that washeadlined “Real estate deal-making is in the family blood.” The company owned property worth $1 billion, and Alvin Wolff Sr. boasted of a deal it did in San Diego, selling 272 units in one day for $71 million, 50% more than what it bought them for 18 months earlier.
The company had long since abandoned the single-family market, and Wolff said the family was focused on markets where supply constraints pushed rents up. The Spokane market, Wolff said, was stable without supply constraints that would attract more investment from the family.
In 2007, company founder Alvin Wolff Sr. died. His obituary said the company had holdings worth $3 billion. The following year, in 2008, Fritz Wolff Jr. was named CEO at the age of 31 – the same age is grandfather was when he started the company. He also moved back to Spokane, but left the company headquartered in Arizona.
Wolff, who continues to lead the company, held the reins as the company experienced explosive growth. In 2012, the company reached the 15,000-unit mark. Four years later, that number doubled, to 30,000 units.
A social mission
Aside from Wolff’s leadership in the family company, he’s staked out territory of his own.
In 2015, he co-founded Katerra with Jim Davidson, a technology investor who co-founded Silver Lake Partners, a private equity firm with $39 billion in assets that focuses on leveraged buyouts in technology and media.
In 2018, Katerra, a start-up construction firm that designs and constructs buildings with wood made to have the strength of steel, raised $865 million in new financing. The company’s cross-laminated timber is being used in Avista’s $60 million, five-story, 159,000-square-foot Catalyst Building at the south landing of the University District Gateway Bridge.
Wolff is the governor of 31 active corporations listed with the state Corporations & Charities Division.
Beyond business, the Wolff family is no stranger to charitable giving. This year, it gave an undisclosed amount of money to Second Harvest for the purchase of a new facility, the Wolff Family Child Hunger Solution Center. Wolff also is involved in the Community Cancer Fund, Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery and the College Success Foundation.
In July 2018, the Spokane Journal of Business wrote a lengthy profile of Wolff, in which he described the relationship between Katerra and the family company as a “prolific one.” Like his father, Wolff talked about a “growing housing crisis in this country, especially in the for-rent area,” and what it meant for developers.
He said developers had been too focused on the high-end housing for the affluent in wealthy cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which had led to a nationwide shortage of 15 to 20 million housing units.
“We’re focused, almost as a social mission, on housing throughout the U.S.,” he said. Spokane was ripe with potential. He said he’d done business in “100 markets throughout the country” and Spokane was unique, with its health care sector and affordable, yet highly skilled, labor.
“I think that’s caught the eye of lots of business interest outside the community, especially where employment costs, housing costs, and public costs, i.e. tax regimes, have gotten far more and more difficult throughout the country,” he said.
More personally, he said he and his wife, Katie, wanted to come back home and raise their children here.
In 2010, the couple bought one of the largest homes in Spokane – a 20,000-square-foot home near Cliff Park on the South Hill that cost them $2.8 million. The 1917 home is on a two-acre lot, and has a third-floor grand ballroom and historical Brunswick bowling lane in the basement, complete with pin setter and ball return.
Entitled, or condescending?
Woodward’s campaign manager, Allison Walther, said she wouldn’t comment on Wolff or his contributions, but argued that the amount of outside dollars pouring into the race “shows a higher level of interest and the importance of the election.”
“We’ve never seen this amount of money coming in,” she said, adding that the campaign has no contact with any PAC. “The amount of money coming in just shows the interest in the election, whether it’s individual donors or whether it’s businesses. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It just shows people have an interest.”
Woodward’s opponent in the race for mayor, Ben Stuckart, who is the target of campaign spenders like Wolff, said the Spokane Good Government Alliance and the state Realtors PAC “think Spokane needs to run behind closed doors.”
“They’re still thinking Spokane is run by old money,” Stuckart said earlier this week. “They don’t want a mayor that’s going to be independent.”
He called Wolff – as well as other backers of the SGGA like Michael Senske, who heads Pearson Packaging Systems, and Ryan Gee, of Gee Automotive – “entitled.”
“They all inherited their wealth. They didn’t earn it. They inherited it,” he said. “I’ve never met any of them, but they sure are entitled.”
On Friday, Stuckart had tempered his reaction to the spending some, but said it showed “that the status quo is a strong thing and they want to keep the status quo is what it is.”
“Part of my campaign is being mayor for all, whether they disagree with me or agree with me,” he said.
Wolff said he’s not involved in any way with the Realtors spending in Spokane, but said its spending “demonstrates how many different people and industries are concerned about the direction this election will take us. You saw it in the voter intensity in the primary election.”
He dismissed Stuckart’s take on why he was spending such a large amount of money.
“I find Stuckart’s comment about doing business behind closed doors laughable – we’re the ones advocating for transparency,” he wrote. “Last time I checked, he’s the one who wants to keep labor negotiations secret – which clears up why the unions are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to attack Nadine Woodward with sexist and condescending insinuations.”
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