In his youth, Harlan Douglass would visit construction sites and pick up spent nails. He’d take them home and straighten them out.
Those things cost money that he wouldn’t have to spend when he built homes.
Through hard work, and an expert eye for potential, Douglass assembled a real estate empire of commercial buildings, post offices, homes and apartment buildings in Spokane and six states that exceeds $1 billion in value.
Douglass died in his Spokane home just after midnight Sunday. He was 86.
“I’ve represented a lot of different developers. I’ve been doing this for 47 years,” Douglass attorney, friend and former business partner Steve Hassing said. “Harlan was a little bit different than any of them.”
A tenacious and fierce businessman, Douglass’ greatest gift was his vision, Hassing said.
“Harlan was a bright guy. But often times, he wasn’t the smartest guy in the room – until it came to real estate,” Hassing said. “It was like he had a computer chip in his brain. He could look at a project and he knew how to do it and how to make it work.”
Douglass was preceded in death by his wife, Maxine, who died in 2016. Both suffered from Alzheimer’s disease that progressed over several years.
The Douglass development legacy is daunting, with more than 250 commercial buildings, 2,000 apartment units, self-storage complexes and even dozens of post offices in several states.
His sons, Harley and Lanzce Douglass, have continued developments in separate companies and have waged a testy legal battle that continues on appeal over several hundred million dollars’ worth of property once owned by their parents. The case centers on how those vast holdings should be distributed between the two sons and a daughter Stacey Douglass Boies.
“I learned everything from my dad,” Harley Douglass said. “Him and my mom exposed all three of us kids to things that most people can never even imagine. They accomplished so much.”
Harley Douglass, 62, said he remembers when he was invited as a child to ride in a Learjet with his father and millionaire businessman David Heerensperger, who founded Eagle Hardware and Garden.
“Dad was on that board of directors,” Douglass said. “Heerensperger picked us up, would fly to Utah and Oregon, and would circle a town in the Learjet.”
Heerensperger would point out the window and tell Harlan Douglass, “I want to be there,” Harley Douglass said.
“Dad would find the property, buy it, build a store and rent it back to Pay n’ Pak and Eagle.”
Harlan Douglass pulled that trick often. He would find a piece of property and convince all kinds of businesses to come to Spokane, with a building already built to specifications for what they needed.
“He brought a lot of new businesses, restaurants, hardware stores and a lot of new gas stations to Spokane,” Harley Douglass said. “He built up and down the West Coast. He would be the first one to say that Spokane was the worst municipality to work with.
“He said it was harder to get anything done in Spokane than anywhere else,” Harley Douglass said. “Everybody who knows dad, heard that story.”
Harlan Douglass was born in Electric City, Washington.
His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father, Harold Douglass, helped build Grand Coulee Dam. After falling and breaking his back, Harold Douglass moved the family to Spokane where the patriarch started a home-foundation business.
“That’s how my dad was exposed to construction people,” Harley Douglass said. “He always admired people who were in construction. He made more money on his first house than his dad made in a year of putting in foundations.”
Harlan Douglass became friends with another home builder, Vern Ziegler, who founded Ziegler Lumber, that later changed its name to Ziggy’s. Ziegler’s wife, Mary, worked with Maxine Hilby. She set up Maxine with Harlan on a blind date, Harley Douglass said. The new couple married on Nov. 14, 1959.
Maxine Douglass died on Nov. 14, 2016, on the couple’s 57th wedding anniversary.
“My mom and dad were totally self-made,” Harley Douglass said. “Both came from parents who didn’t make a lot of money. But, they both worked together as a team. They were always unified. They had plenty of hard times.”
Ear for success
Hassing, the attorney, said Harlan Douglass always struck up conversations with fellow developers.
“I first met Harlan in 1976 or ’77 when I first started practicing law,” he said. “He and Maxine would buy properties, and I would close the deals for him. I was thrilled to do it.”
Hassing initially was more interested in real estate than his law degree.
“When I graduated from Gonzaga Law School, I had 20 houses in the Gonzaga area,” Hassing said. “I looked up Harlan about what he was doing. I was kind of thrilled to call Harlan a client. It was like a high school quarterback getting to play catch with Joe Montana.”
Douglass never missed the chance to talk with builders.
“He would talk to everybody,” Hassing said. “If there was a guy who just started building, Harlan would see him on the street and strike up a conversation. Harlan would ask him questions about how he was building and what he was doing. Very seldom, he’d learn something. But if he did, he’d take it and use it.”
Harley Douglass said the same thing.
“He would talk to anybody. He’d learn things from everybody,” the son said. “He never said, ‘I have this, I have that.’ He was just a regular person when it came to that.”
Deanna Malcom said she worked the past 15 years with the master developer.
“He was a fierce businessman. But he was incredibly loyal and kind. We got to see all of those things,” she said.
Malcom said Harlan Douglass told her about how he would collect nails from job sites to save money.
“He would talk to a lot of people for their advice and expertise,” she said. “If there was an expert on something, he would talk to them and get to know that person and get as much information from them as he could so he could become the expert.”
As he built homes, Douglass began to expand his property holdings by attending auctions where land was sold for tax or bank foreclosures.
“He picked up a lot of his portfolio in the ’70s and ’80s,” Malcom said. “He would sit on land until he had an idea what to do. We would stand in a field of nothing. He’d ask, ‘Can you see a self-storage or commercial building or apartments?‘ That’s what he loved – turning ground into something.”
Randy Fewel, the former CEO of Inland Northwest Bank, said he met Harlan Douglass in the 1980s. Douglass had helped underwrite the founding of the bank and sat on the board of directors.
“It was great. He never threw his weight around,” Fewel said. “Anything to do with real estate, he could tell you in two minutes whether it was a good deal and we should loan money or we should pass.”
His reputation sometimes didn’t match Harlan Douglass’ business dealings, he said.
“Harlan played hardball. I know there are a lot of mixed feelings about Harlan out there,” Fewel said. “I had more than one guy tell me, ‘If you did what you said you were going to do for Harlan, he would pay like a clock.’ ”
Harley Douglass said he once saw his father complete a deal shooting a basketball in a game of horse.
Malcom said Harlan Douglass would never accept rejection.
“He always told us as a company, ‘If you don’t ask, the answer is always no,’ ” she said. “So he always encouraged us to ask questions. That was the teaching side of him.”
The elder Douglass gave his word and kept people to their promises, Hassing said.
“Harlan was a tough businessman. There were a lot of people out there who might have not liked Harlan,” he said. “But it wasn’t because Harlan cheated anybody. If you made a deal with Harlan, he expected the other guy to honor the deal. Those who didn’t, had a problem.”
That “tenacious” side came out in the Spokane County Courthouse during a civil case in which Hassing was representing Harlan Douglass against First American Title over an undisclosed utilities easement that was preventing him from developing a storage unit.
The hearing adjourned, and Hassing followed opposing attorney, John Munding, out into the hallway. In front were Harlan Douglass and another attorney from Denver who had flown in to hear the case.
Harlan Douglass and the Denver attorney asked if they could discuss a possible settlement. Hassing and Munding agreed and walked away, only to hear a noise behind them.
“The next thing I knew, I hear a big commotion and the (Denver) lawyer was on his knees,” Hassing said. “I got to Harlan just as he was getting ready to hit him again.”
Apparently, as the two men negotiated a settlement, the Denver attorney tapped Harlan Douglass on his shoulder.
“He took offense to that,” Hassing said of Harlan Douglass. “He hit him, and down he went.”
He spent one night in the Spokane County Jail.
“He would tell stories, ‘When I was in prison …” Hassing said. “I’d say, ‘Harlan, you were never in prison. You spent one night in the county jail.’ He thought it was kind of funny. He was not one to be trifled with.”
More than anything, Hassing said Douglass was “like a savant” when it came to real estate.
“He could drive down the street and spot a piece of property, not just in Spokane but other cities as well, and he could envision what would go well there and what would make it work. He did hundreds of deals.”