Sheila Collins came to Spokane for a temporary job. She stayed and helped make lasting changes.
Collins was 25, with a degree in political science and living in Sacramento in 1973 when she saw a help wanted ad for the Folklife Festival for the upcoming Expo ’74 in Spokane. She wanted to move, and didn’t want to go to a big city, so Spokane seemed like a good temporary option.
She arrived in Spokane in November of that year, with six months to prepare for the opening of the World’s Fair, which would kick off in April and close the following November.
“I had no intention of staying,” she said.
But working for the festival, where the exhibits changed every week with people and examples of different countries and regions, was interesting and challenging.
“I met my husband, got married, made friends, had kids,” she said.
Her husband was folk singer Utah Phillips, who was hired for the six months of the fair to act as site host and ambassador. They moved into a house on the lower South Hill, near the end of West 14th Avenue. After they divorced, Phillips left but Collins stayed and eventually started a catering business, Catered For You.
It was Spokane’s post-Expo period, when the economy tanked and the neighborhood movement “just popped up all over,” she recalled recently.
“People were really dissatisfied with the decisions being made, and they found common issues,” Collins said. “Zoning was a huge one that united people.”
With her neighbors in what is now the Historic Cannon Addition, Collins challenged plans by an out-of-town company to build a nursing home on property overlooking Latah Creek. In a long battle that went all the way to City Hall, the developer pulled out and the neighbors won. Polly Judd Park is now on the site.
That was just the beginning of Collins’ community involvement. She was a founding member of the Cliff Cannon Neighborhood Council, the Spokane Neighborhood Economic Development Alliance and the Interstate Sole Source Aquifer Study Group; a board member of the West Central Community Center and Friends of the Falls; an executive board member of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Her community activities led to being tapped for a mayoral appointment to the local Growth Management Act implementation board that was getting citizen participation in the new city Comprehensive Plan, and a gubernatorial appointment to the state Land Use Study Commission for possible changes to that act.
Judy Cole, who worked in community relations for Avista and its predecessor Washington Water Power for some 35 years, first met Collins while helping the city form the neighborhood councils in the late 1980s. After Cole had spoken at a meeting, Collins approached her.
“She said we didn’t share the same language,” Cole recalled. “I was speaking corporate and that was not necessarily how neighborhood people spoke. I didn’t even realize I was doing it.
“She was helpful. She wanted me to be effective.”
The two became good friends, working together on political campaigns and local issues, and watching sunsets together in Collins’ backyard.
“She’s fair-minded. She’s collaborative. She’s honest and highly effective,” Cole said.
Chris Marr was a car dealer in the 1980s when he met community activist Collins.
“I remember being impressed with her understanding of the neighborhoods and being very focused on getting community engagement,” said Marr, a former state senator. Collins also “understood the value of a vibrant downtown” at a time when businesses were pulling out and storefronts were going dark, he added.
For 19 years, Collins owned and operated here catering business, Catered for You. In 1998, she hired a new chef, Romeo Herrera, an immigrant from Guatemala by way of Los Angeles. Herrera, who would eventually buy the business with his wife, Linette, described Collins as one of the best bosses he ever had.
“She was like a mother, but firm,” he said. “Even though she was the owner, she would say ‘What do you think? How can we do this?’”
In 2004, a few years after selling her business, Collins was the co-chair of the Spokane gubernatorial campaign for Christine Gregoire.
When Gregoire won a narrow victory in the final recount, Collins’ name came up as a prospect for running the governor’s office in Spokane.
Gregoire said recently she had met and liked Collins during the chaotic campaign, but wanted to talk with her first before hiring her to be the governor’s “eyes and ears” in Spokane.
“We clicked immediately,” Gregoire said, and she came to rely on Collins to explain what programs and projects were important for Spokane and Eastern Washington. “Sheila was always honest. I credit her with being the unsung hero of bringing home opportunities for Spokane.”
From state support for renovation of the Fox Theater and the Mobius Science Center to the push for a medical school in Spokane, Collins was the person who could explain the need and keep her abreast of what was going on, Gregoire said. She was comfortable with high-ranking government officials and everyday people.
“She was able to relate, and build trust,” the former governor said. “There isn’t anybody that she couldn’t, wouldn’t talk to.”
Marr, who was a state senator for part of that period, said Collins didn’t just focus on Spokane when she was in that office. Although much of Eastern Washington is governed by Republicans and she represented a Democratic governor, local elected officials “respected Sheila’s willingness to engage and understand where they were coming from.”
Her ability to bring people together came to the attention of Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, who appreciated her communication skills and knowledge of the community.
“I called Gov. Gregoire to ask if I could poach her,” Verner said recently. “She reluctantly agreed.”
As Verner’s government relations director, Collins coordinated issues between the mayor and council offices, and between the city and other local, state or federal government offices.
“She came to work every day wanting to contribute to the community,” Verner said. “She just gets a kick out of helping people … finding solutions and connecting people to resources.”
Collins later returned to Gregoire’s local office in the governor’s second term, remained to help with incoming Gov. Jay Inslee’s transition and stayed three years before she “basically retired.”
Now 71, Collins, still keeps active in community organizations. She doesn’t regret sticking with Spokane over a bigger city.
“It’s small enough to build relationships and get things done,” she said. “That fertile ground has given rise to numerous organizations that work for the betterment of the community.”
Major events like Bloomsday, Hoopfest and Spokefest all benefited from community activism, Collins said. The evolution of city government, the growth of local neighborhoods and the city’s development into a system of centers and corridors are all a result of people saying “there are better ways to do this,” she added.
“It’s not done. And it shouldn’t be,” she said.
Cole said Collins still has strong connections and continues to be available to younger activists and community leaders, occupying the important role of “sage adviser.”
Marr wonders what will happen when she completely retires: “What three people are going to replace Sheila Collins?”
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