The city of Seattle is giving more than $780,000 to a private club previously led by Mayor Bruce Harrell, part of a bundle of equitable development grants intended to support diverse property ownership.

The city is giving the Royal Esquire Club, a Black men’s social club in Columbia City, $781,827 “to support the rehabilitation of existing cultural space,” Harrell announced Monday.

It’s the fourth largest of 19 awards given to community groups in neighborhoods at high risk of displacement. The larger awards are intended for property acquisition or major projects, while smaller awards are intended to help groups build capacity.

Harrell, on Monday, was still named as the chair of the Royal Esquire Club’s executive committee, in a list on the club’s website dated to 2019. Last year while running for mayor, he described himself as chair of the group’s board.

Jamie Housen, a Harrell spokesperson, said Harrell resigned from the club in November 2021.

In announcing the awards, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development said an advisory board of community members gave the city recommendations on who should receive funding.


A city timeline, prepared for groups considering applying for funding, said “mayor approval” of awards was to come in August.

But on Monday, Housen said Harrell “had no role in deciding which organizations would receive the awards, and did not receive or score the applications.”

He said there was no concern about a conflict of interest and that the advisory board’s recommendations were approved “as a slate” by Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington.

The mayor did release a statement announcing the recipients, which in part said, “With these investments, we are partners in helping these cultural organizations achieve their dreams of owning property and having a forever home in our city.”

The city’s Equitable Development Initiative was launched in 2016 in response to gentrification and inequitable growth. Funded by a tax on short-term rentals like Airbnb, it has historically provided about $5 million each year to groups that serve communities at risk of displacement. Additional funding this year came from the city’s JumpStart payroll tax on large employers.

Other projects funded by the program this year include Tubman Health, a new health clinic planned for Rainier Valley; a new office for Muslim Housing Services; and improvements to the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Discovery Park.


The Royal Esquire Club has been a fixture in Seattle’s Black community for decades. It was founded in 1947 by five Black men seeking a place to socialize in a segregated city. In its early years, it was repeatedly raided by police and denied a liquor license, until fed up members caravaned to Olympia in the early 1960s, demonstrating on the steps of the Capitol until they got an audience with the governor.

The club moved at least three times over the years before arriving at its current location, an old Columbia City pool hall, in 1985. It hosts events — happy hours, Monday Night Football watch parties, dance classes — most nights of the week. The most popular is its monthly First Friday Networking Social.

Attendance had dipped in recent years, as Seattle’s Black population has declined and the club struggled to attract younger members.

But Harrell, who joined the club’s leadership in 2016, has been credited with bringing new ideas and a fresh recruiting push that have helped swell membership ranks.

The announcement Monday did not say what specifically the club will use the funding for and the club did not respond to questions.

Harrell has previously intermingled his official city position with his membership in the Royal Esquire Club. In 2018, while City Council president, Harrell involved himself in a wage-theft investigation into the club by the Seattle Office of Labor Standards.


A club employee had complained she hadn’t been paid for some after-hours work. Harrell called the Office of Labor Standards, criticized aspects of the investigation and mentioned his role in the office’s budget, the lead investigator wrote in a memo at the time.

One Office of Labor Standards manager said she perceived “a level of intimidation and implied threat” and the office’s director at the time called Harrell’s budget remarks “totally inappropriate.”

The club agreed to pay about $11,000 in back wages, interest and penalties and Harrell later defended his actions, saying he was sticking up for a nonprofit in his district.