Suzie Burke Doesn't Shy Away From Battles For Fremont's Soul -- Land Goddess Of Fremont

Land baroness Suzie Burke has just entered the Red Door Alehouse, flinging the door open, sending a gush of snappy air past the lunchtime crowd - half of whom she has either helped or harangued in one way or another.

She is a vision in hot pink, from the sweater and big bow in her hair to the lipstick on a mouth that is telling the waitress: "I'll have the steak sandwich. I'm a carnivore!"

Indeed, there isn't a dainty bone in her Irish body, as opponents have learned the hard way. Not that she has decked anybody in her long, colorful career as Fremont's largest landowner. But the feisty 52-year-old has been known to stomp out of meetings and, say her foes, steamroll those who don't see things her way.

Bombastic and flamboyant, she also can be refreshingly politically incorrect. And why not? Burke owns a staggering 30 acres of Fremont - about half of it in the Fremont industrial area along the Ship Canal and the rest in Fremont's retail core.

"She's the Godmother of Fremont," says Charlotte Buchanan, owner of the GlamOrama store. "If you want something, you go to Suzie and kiss her ring."

Almost every chapter in "The Fremont Success Story" involves Burke. The Adobe Systems campus, for example, will be built on Burke property between the Fremont and Aurora bridges. A "History House" to honor Seattle neighborhoods will be located on another Burke lot across the street.

She's landlord of the popular Red Door Alehouse at Fremont's bridgehead, and she owns the land under nearby Redhook Ale Brewery. Then there's the intersection at Stone Way North and North 34th, of which she owns three corners, and, well, you get the picture.

What kind of landlord is she?

"I'm wonderful!" Burke exclaims happily during lunch at the Red Door. "They call me the Lovable Landlord. I've got one who calls me the Land Goddess."

She inherited most of the property from her father, Joe Burke, an Irish Catholic millworker who bought his first Fremont property in 1939. The Burke mill made church railings, wood doors and frames - including those still encasing the windows of The Bon Marche.

"Irish people really believe in owning the land," says Burke. "And when my father adopted my oldest brother, he was afraid that if he didn't make enough money, they'd take him back - you know, Catholic charities."

Burke laughs, a galloping sound well known among diners in this bustling tavern. She greets many of them by name, including Bill Parker - the latest to wrangle with the divine Miss Burke. (That's Miss, as in twice divorced and now "successfully unmarried.")

"Some folks have taken on airs," Burke explains, casting deliberate glances at Parker three tables away.

Parker is president of the Fremont First National Bank, a unique enterprise that opened two years ago to serve the community's small businesses. Burke was instrumental in starting the bank, helping raise $2.8 million and buying 5,000 shares.

With much fanfare, the doors opened in 1994. "It would be a Cinderella story today, except we got a banker and some board people who now say we'd be better off in Ballard," Burke says.

Indeed, Parker and other bank officials want to move the bank to larger offices in Ballard, and Burke feels betrayed. She notes that the new site is owned by the new bank chairman, Mike Slattery, and calls that a conflict of interest.

"They've acted like a bunch of spoiled brats," she says. "There's no more reason for this bank to move to Ballard than for me to fly to the moon."

Parker probably wishes she would. Burke has waged a nasty and public fight against the move. But there does happen to be something called The Other Side Of The Story.

Turns out the bank was losing money, and Burke was "unelected" as chair but asked to stay on the board. She balked, and the battle began.

Moreover, Slattery's alleged conflict of interest is not much different from her own. The Fremont bank leases land from her brother.

"She doesn't want it to move, but wants to paint the other kettle black," says Mike Peck, a Fremont property owner.

Richard Malia, a bank-board member, says the modular building where the bank now operates in Fremont is too small for expansion but will remain open as a branch. The Ballard site is bigger and better known, having housed a different bank for decades. Street traffic is high - increasing the bank's visibility and potential for growth.

"We are a community bank, and we are not going to abandon Fremont," says Malia, who owns Ponti Restaurant. "We really hope we can work things out with Suzie."

Malia knows how critical her support is to the project. When Burke is behind something, she can move mountains. When she's against it, "You'll get slammed."

That assessment comes from Bill Uznay, owner of Hanover Cheesecakes. He has had several run-ins with Burke and says she has "overweighted influence because she's so obnoxious. You can't have a civil conversation with her because she will shout you down."

"I've never shouted Bill down in my life," protests Burke. "I don't remember even having a strong-worded conversation."

Says Uznay: "I think a lot of people feel, if Suzie's against it, don't even bother because you'll get chewed up and spit out."

Says Burke: "Well, I think you ought to ask a few people around the community about Bill. . . ."

"She will make or break people, and I don't think she knows that. She can be pretty vindictive at times," says Jim Daly, owner of Daly's Home Decorating Center. "But she's more philanthropic than a lot of people I've met. She's part of Fremont's character." Daly and Burke co-founded the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, and he considers her a good friend. Paul Shipman is a fan, too. Burke coaxed Redhook Ale, which Shipman co-founded, to Fremont and he has never been sorry.

"By virtue of her position and wealth, she could have easily been a passive landlord," says Shipman. "But she has embraced the renaissance of Fremont and provided a ton of leadership. I can't imagine Fremont as it is today without Suzie."

That sentiment is widely shared in the funky shops and restaurants that have become so popular in Fremont. Although Burke is a businesswoman, she understands the importance of art to Fremont's success and has embraced it. When the looming statue of Lenin needed a home, for example, Burke allowed it to be placed in her parking lot.

"If I have any clout, it's this: If you can't put it anywhere else, I'll take it," she says. "If you can't get it done any other way, I'll write a check."

And write them she does. She has made significant contributions to the Wallingford Boys & Girls Club, and almost single-handedly saved B.F. Day Elementary School from the city's plan to tear it down.

"If someone needs help, she'll do it," says Costas Antonopoulos, owner of Costas Opa Greek Restaurant. "She's always calling me up to help charities."

Love her or hate her, and there are plenty of people on both sides, almost everyone acknowledges her generosity and the important role she has played in boosting Fremont.

"Strong people have a way of being a lightning rod for controversy," says Shipman. "But I am proud to be associated with Suzie. I stand at her defense."