Tammany Hall’s got nothing on what’s going on these days out at the Salmon Bay Eagles club in Ballard.
Change is definitely not a regular at the Salmon Bay Eagles club in Ballard.
“Preserved in amber,” one member described it to me.
“We’re traditional, unchanging, like a church — except a church with a bar,” says another.
So it was eyebrow-raising last month when about 50 new members, many of them in their 20s and 30s, showed up for a general Eagles meeting. Typically the meetings draw only about a dozen Eagle die-hards.
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Why the sudden interest in an 83-year-old fraternal club?
Because on the docket was a $2.4 million land sale. Specifically, it was a proposal to forward to an all-club democratic vote whether the Eagles should sell an adjacent tract of land the club has owned since 1973. The proposed buyer: the Olympic Athletic Club across the street.
Which, not coincidentally, is where all those new Eagles were coming from.
“You couldn’t make this up,” says James Forgette, the club president. “People from the athletic club are becoming Eagles for the sole purpose of getting this land. They’re stacking the deck, and it’s working.
“Tammany Hall’s got nothing on this story.”
This story involves a fraught relationship between the old-Ballard social order and one of the city’s premier health clubs. The backdrop is Seattle’s endless struggle over parking.
But it’s the infiltration of the Eagles that’s got Ballard talking.
Nine years ago, the Olympic Athletic Club, in central Ballard, sought to buy an 8,800- square-foot lot to the north, owned by the Salmon Bay Aerie of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The lot has housed auto-repair shops and is polluted. In a 2007 letter, the Athletic Club claimed pollution from the Eagles’ lot had leached over to the Olympic property.
Instead of inevitable legal action, how about you sell us the land instead, the letter proposed.
This was received by some of the admittedly stubborn Eagles as a threat. So they said no. They did their own environmental study, which concluded their land wasn’t contaminating the Olympic property, now also the site of a luxury hotel.
Last year Olympic tried again. This time the offer has gotten traction within the Eagles. A group of Eagle trustees voted 5 to 1 that the club should take the deal — pending a democratic vote of the full membership.
“The price seems more than fair, and some in the club are very vigorously in favor of it,” says Andy Larson, an Eagles club officer (his title is Worthy Chaplain.) “But then Olympic started squeezing us.”
A flier from the athletic club describes a recruiting effort to pay the dues for its members to join the Eagles so they can then vote for the Eagles to sell to them. The club says it will use the land to build a 400-space parking lot.
“We need your help to improve parking in Ballard,” the flier states. “We have made a generous offer to the Eagles, which includes paying the environmental cleanup costs associated with the property.
“However, the Eagles is a democratic organization that only allows members to vote on issues. So, if you want to become a member and vote on the issue, please complete the following four simple steps.”
Olympic is offering to pay the Eagles dues ($36) for any health-club members that sign up, as well as escort them in groups across the street to be initiated. Then Olympic is hosting a series of catered parties with prizes and live entertainment to rally these new members to attend the Eagles final land-sale vote on Feb. 6.
“After dinner, we will walk over together to the Eagles to attend the meeting,” the athletic club flier reads. “Arrive on Saturday, February 6, 2016 … and cast your vote!”
My calls to Olympic on this haven’t been returned. Some Eagles say they are fine with Olympic’s recruiting drive.
But other Eagles have noted that at the very least, it seems shady for the athletic club to be angling for a say on both sides of a real-estate transaction.
“We’re being taken over,” says the Eagles’ Larson. “This feels like we’re being put in a vise.”
Also, infiltrating an 83-year-old nonprofit social club seems like an extreme length to go just to get more parking. Sign of the times in Seattle, I guess?
One Eagle I spoke with said that on the bright side, the club hasn’t seen this much action and intrigue in, well, ever. As for all those new members, “we haven’t had this much new blood since the ’50s.”
I told this to Forgette, the Eagles’ president, who laughed. Then he sighed.
Once the land-sale vote is done, he said, “I’m not expecting we’ll ever see those new members in here again.”