Suzie Burke: The Land Baroness of Fremont

In 1939 J.R Burke bet everything he owned by starting a lumber mill on the Seattle banks of the Fremont Cut that intersects into Seattle’s waterfront, Lake Union. In 1975 Suzie Burke, his daughter, joined the business with the goal of making Fremont great.

Fast forward to today and Suzie has been given the title land baroness by Fremont, as she owns over half of Fremont’s industrial commercial space. It’s because of her work that Fremont boasts some of the most powerful businesses in existence. Businesses like Google, Brooks, Adobe and Tableau just to name a few.

The Seattle skyline has changed dramatically in the last decade. In this interview we’ll meet a big hearted, energetic, passionate and sometimes a bit pushy woman tell the story of how she single handedly changed the landscape in Fremont into the center of the universe. Acquiring this much land in Seattle doesn’t come without its challenges. Here Suzie unapologetically tells stories of her battles with competitors and Seattle governing authorities.

Who is Suzie Burke? What do you do?

I make Fremont better. I’m the second in a family business (my son Michael being the third) that goes back to the 1930’s. My folks were depression era people who started a business because my dad was working for a guy who dropped dead one morning and he knew they were all going to be out of work.

Dad changed his business three times. First it was the tiny mill, then the big Burke Mill Company and later on the Burke Industrial Center which is when I came on board. We had railroad and we were on Highway 99. All of that made us a nice industrial park compact of 19 acres.

What were the rough boundaries of that original 19 acres?

The Aurora Bridge to Finney and below 34th street. Running along 34th street on the lower 18-30 feet down was the Burlington Northern Railroad. That railroad went all the way over to the U District area.

What did a typical day look like for your dad in 1939 when he was starting this?

They worked 16 hour days. Mom and Dad rented a $25 a month house across the street so that they didn’t have to have a car. Every dime went into that business including hawking her rings. My mother used to say if they hadn’t signed the final papers on Joe’s adoption (my oldest brother) Catholic Charities would have taken him back.

In 1939 my dad wrote a pledge for $3,000 to give to the Arch Bishop for the beginnings of the Blanchet High School and he paid it off over the next three years even though he was starting a business. When my mother said “are you out of your mind?” he said “Florence, you give it and then it comes.”

Tell us about the Quadrant Deal

The Quadrant Deal was my dad’s idea of land leasing. He had turned eighty and didn’t want to build any more buildings. I had managed to buy the Seattle disposing property in 1983 that he had always wanted but no longer wanted to deal with. It had three acres and an old brick building. The building I could rent out but we had to do something with the three acres and dad said “let’s do a land lease.” At the time Seattle wasn’t doing land leases, but dad felt like it was time.

I will tell you the little formula that I tell people all the time now. You’ve got the golden property, you can envision what could be there, and the property taxes are more than what you can charge for rent. We were in that situation in 1986. We were charging tenants less in rent per square foot then what the real estate taxes were per square foot. Even though they paid that too, it was an issue.

When it became Quadrant we wanted to do a project. In December 1986 we signed a lease and in January 1987 we started applying for permits. In May 1987 we put the shovel in the ground and cut the ribbon to open the building called the Burke Building in November. The building sold to the Washington State Pension Fund in December 1987. That’s showing what you can do rather quickly.

Tell us about the Red Door

In 2000 my son Michael was working as a stage manager for rock and roll groups. When my mother died he came home from the funeral and decided to work for the business for five years to see if he liked it.

I wanted to move the little blue building off the Fremont Bridge that had been dad’s offices. The owner of the Red Door would have had to be closed for 18 months, which would have ruined his business. Michael took on the job of moving the Red Door. They had to have five permits, which I applied for a year and a half in advance. The city of Seattle said no, you can only do one permit at a time. It was a big challenge but we managed to get it all done.

What are some of the biggest frustrations you have with the city of Seattle right now?

I just think our city is making huge mistakes in getting into trying to figure out how they can micro manage how businesses run. We’re losing businesses today out of Seattle who don’t want to be micro managed by the government. I also think they are pretty petty about their land use decisions.

What are your hopes for Fremont?

I usually say we’re about half way there just to shake everybody up. Mom and Dad, when I came to work for them, had a nice industrial park working good. They said “wouldn’t it be nice if Fremont was the nice little town that it used to be?” so we’re making it a nice little town inside a town. Our only real problem is making sure the city of Seattle doesn’t stop us.

Organizations Suzie works with

Mary’s Place: Suzie raised a lot of money for them this year. If you want to help homeless women with kids there is no downside to this organization. They are lovely people and spend the money wisely.

St. Vincent De Paul: Suzie loves them for the same reason. They don’t take government money and they get the job done.

Salvation Army: If you’re worried about homelessness go here or to the two above. They will know what to do.

Suggested Website tells good Fremont stories all the time.

 Photo courtesy of Joyce McClure