By Erica C. Barnett
On Monday, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced the recipients of 20 financial grants through the Economic Development Initiative, which funds organizations “working on anti-displacement efforts in high displacement risk neighborhoods.” One of the largest grants, totaling almost $800,000, went to the Royal Esquire Club—a private Black men’s club in Columbia City where Harrell was board president for six years.
Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen told PubliCola on Monday that Harrell resigned from the club in November and was not directly involved in choosing the recipients of the equitable development grants.
“Decisions on which organizations received funding were determined by the community through a competitive community-based process. The mayor had no role in deciding which organizations would receive the awards, and did not receive or score the applications,” Housen said.
Jason Kelly, a spokesman for OPCD, added that “we do a review for potential conflict of interest among EDI advisory board members prior to their participating in the process. Also, the Mayor’s Office reviews the results prior to the announcement to ensure that OPCD and the advisory board followed our established process.”
The award to the Royal Esquire Club is the fourth largest grant among 20 groups funded through the initiative; the club was one of only eight organizations that received the full amount requested. In contrast, for example, the Tubman Center for Health and Freedom, which is building a South Seattle health center for BIPOC patients, asked for $2 million for property acquisition and received $1 million.
According to a presentation on the awards from the Office of Planning and Community Development, the Royal Esquire Club will use the $800,000 to “support rehabilitation of existing cultural space.” In 2019, according to the group’s most recent IRS filing, the club’s total revenues were $359,000.
An additional 46 applicants did not receive EDI awards from the city. PubliCola has asked OPCD for a copy of the Royal Esquire Club’s grant application, along with the applications of the other award recipients.
Harrell’s longstanding connection to the Royal Esquire Club has been the source of controversy, and a formal ethics complaint, in the past. In 2018, when he was city council president, Harrell intervened in an investigation into wage theft involving five women who worked as servers at the club. When the city’s Office of Labor Standards began looking into the allegations, Harrell contacted the city employee who was investigating the case to remind him that the council and mayor had the power to cut OLS’ budget. During public council meetings, Harrell called OLS’ investigators “extremely unprofessional” and their treatment of the Royal Esquire Club “horrible,” and sought to add $50,000 to the city’s annual budget for a survey of businesses about how the office had treated them.
According to the eventual settlement, the club had to pay the women about $12,000 in back wages and fines. The Ethics and Elections Commission closed the ethics investigation without a finding.