Developing An Agenda -- Issaquah's George Rowley Doesn't Skip Out On Big Issues

ISSAQUAH - If all you knew about "Skip" Rowley was that he's a wealthy landowner who has helped to bankroll campaigns against two regional-transit plans, you might think he was just another anti-tax suburban developer.

You would be wrong.

George Rowley Jr., arguably the most powerful man in Issaquah, defies labels.

Generally supportive of Republicans, he has little patience with those who promise to cut taxes regardless of the consequences. He has embraced a number of government projects that would raise taxes - two this year alone - and has been a leader in funding private arts and recreation projects.

Until recently, Rowley was generally unknown outside Issaquah, where he exerted his influence behind the scenes. In recent months, however, he has emerged as a leader of regional stature.

Among his most recent accomplishments were helping usher the Village Theatre into its new home, getting the Issaquah Youth and Community Center built, and founding a political-action committee to promote highway funding.

"He's a barnburner," says U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a Republican who has known Rowley since they were both in Bellevue High School's Class of 1959. "I see Skip as the father of Issaquah. Our other classmate, Kemper Freeman, is the father of Bellevue."

Rowley teamed up with his old friend and fishing buddy, Freeman, last year to help defeat the Regional Transit Authority's $6.7 billion plan to lay light-rail lines from Everett to Tacoma and from Seattle to Redmond's Microsoft campus.

Now the pair are back, fighting the RTA's scaled-down $3.9 billion plan that goes before voters in three counties Nov. 5. Expecting a tougher battle, Rowley is boosting his campaign contribution from $20,000 last year to $35,000 this year.

He opposes the transit plan primarily because he fears it would discourage voters from supporting a future increase in the gas tax to fund badly needed highway improvements.

"It's going to suck up every buck we will get for transportation for the next 10 years for sure - and probably for the next 20 or 30," he said. "If this huge bureaucracy gets set up, there will be more and more additions, and more and more additions, and it will go on forever."

Rowley and Freeman have also created a political-action committee to support candidates statewide who support taxes and spending for better roads. Called Mobility 21, the PAC aims to pump $80,000 into campaigns this fall.

During his two terms as president of the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce, Rowley organized a coalition of all Eastside chambers to lobby the Legislature on issues vital to business.

But his fellow business leaders don't always see eye to eye with him. When Rowley recently warned the chamber coalition that tax cuts urged by some legislators would leave schools and highways underfunded, "I didn't get a lot of people nodding their heads saying, `Yeah, that makes sense, Skip.' "

With his short frame and bespectacled, greenish eyes, Rowley, 55, has a casual way of talking and a quick sense of humor.

When the Issaquah City Council zoned Rowley's commercial properties as one of only two locations where adult-entertainment businesses could locate, Rowley exclaimed, "You've just made me the porn king of Issaquah." (He insists, however, he would never rent to a sex shop.)

He has worked in the family business for 29 years, running it since his father died eight years ago.

George Rowley Sr. built half the homes in Eastgate before buying 640 acres on the edge of Issaquah in 1954 and gradually covering the land with houses.

Rowley Jr. is now planning the final building project on the family's original Issaquah tract, the 200-unit Kelkari Condominiums, named after his grown daughters, Kelly and Kari. (His stepdaughter, Bethany, just entered college.)

The property that generates the bulk of Rowley Enterprises' income is 80 acres of prime commercial land just off Interstate 90 around Gilman Boulevard.

"I don't think there's a better property on the east side of Lake Washington," says Rowley, whose tenants include warehousing firms, manufacturers, a car dealership and a shopping center.

Rowley Enterprises subsidiaries operate a motel and marina in Port Townsend and a gravel mine in Maple Valley. The newest subsidiary, Spectrum Sports, represents professional athletes and this year opened the Katy Steding Basketball Academy near Portland.

Rowley, the biggest taxpayer in the Issaquah School District, consistently backs school levies and is campaigning now for passage of next month's ballot issue to build an Issaquah Regional Library.

Convinced that Issaquah needed a youth center, Rowley used his own money to hire a full-time project coordinator for four years. The $4.5 million Youth and Community Center opened last summer with a game room, computer-equipped homework room, three basketball courts, indoor track and weight room.

As past board chairman of the Empty Space Theatre, he negotiated the terms of the theater's current lease in Fremont. His wife, Debra, is former development director of the Village Theatre and is chairwoman of this year's Standing Ovation, the Eastside's biggest fund-raiser for the performing arts.

From the Seattle-based Corporate Council for the Arts, Rowley is trying to extract more funding for Eastside arts organizations.

His can-do spirit applies to the little things as well as the big.

When the city of North Bend ran short of funds to develop a new park property, Rowley sent heavy equipment from a nearby project to grade the 8-acre site for baseball, softball and soccer fields.

"One of the things I really appreciate about Skip is he's not only a dreamer," said Issaquah Mayor Rowan Hinds. "He has a vision for the community, but he's also a doer."

Not that he's always on the winning side. King County voters last month turned down the parks and open-space issue he supported, and Dunn rejected his earlier plea that funding be maintained for the National Endowment for the Arts.

"Even though Skip is a big Eastside developer, he's a hard guy not to like," said the nemesis of Eastside developers, Metropolitan King County Councilman Brian Derdowski. "He's very straightforward, very assertive of his position and very cordial and very friendly."

Mary Scott, a Democratic state House candidate who has worked with Rowley on two civic committees, said, "He'll not only contribute his $200,000 but if you have a car wash he'll also work at the car wash."

With the second Regional Transit Authority ballot on the ballot next month, Rowley probably won't be washing cars for a while.

Deep-sixing the RTA plan, he believes, is the first step toward obtaining funds for a new Lake Washington bridge, more lanes on Interstate 405 and a new I-90 interchange in Issaquah.

"I'm going to do my level best to defeat it," he says of the RTA, "because I think it's not the best thing for our region."