An enigma: Bangasser’s role on Vashon puzzles many

Tom Bangasser in front of the famed sculpture by Julie Speidel, a piece of art Bangasser commissioned and that has become the logo for Vashon College.  - Larry Huggins Photo
Tom Bangasser in front of the famed sculpture by Julie Speidel, a piece of art Bangasser commissioned and that has become the logo for Vashon College.
— image credit: Larry Huggins Photo

Mana Kahssay, owner of Mana Beauty Supply at 23rd and East Union in Seattle’s Central District, has nothing but praise for her landlord of the last 14 years.

Tom Bangasser, she said as she stood behind the counter of her small, cheerfully cluttered shop, is “a wonderful person. Very caring.”

When she suffered from a long illness a few years ago, he didn’t raise her rent. Though she has plenty of bills, she added, “It’s my priority to pay him first, because he’s so kind.”

Around the corner, at Earl’s Barber Shop, Earl Lancaster paused from his work buzz-cutting the hair of a small boy and offered up similar praise. “He’s like a father to me,” he said.

In some people’s eyes, Bangasser, 67, has become something of a persona non grata on Vashon, where his aggressive style and unrelenting criticism played no small role in the mass resignation of Vashon’s nine community council board members last month.

Some Islanders call him a bully; another urges residents to boycott any enterprises he’s involved with. A facebook page called “Vote Bangasser off the Island” was recently created.

“He seems very self-serving,” said Emma Amiad, an Island real estate agent active in Vashon’s civic life.

His latest volley — a far-reaching public disclosure request targeted at the volunteer community council board — went too far, she added. “He just seems to be losing it,” she said.

Even his friends shake their heads at his pugnacious personality. Said Rex Stratton, one of his closest associates, “He’s his own worst enemy.”

At the same time, as tenants at the commercial strip he owns in one of Seattle’s most racially diverse districts attest, he’s also caring and compassionate — a community-minded man who will help out a neighbor, a tenant or even a stranger without hesitation.

Indeed, some struggle to make sense of Tom Bangasser. Does he really care about the issues he fights so aggressively for, or does he have another agenda? Is he philanthropic and civic-minded or a shrewd businessman who hides his money-making ventures behind complex deals?

Bob Powell, an Islander who has worked closely with him at Vashon College, an institution Bangasser helped to found, said he has struggled to understand the long-time civic activist.

“He’s a complex character,” Powell said. “The longer I know him, the more puzzled I am about what makes him tick.”

Bangasser calls himself a business consultant, and to look at his many business registrations with the Secretary of the State, he has a lot of irons in the fire. He owns his five buildings on a full square block in Seattle’s Central District as the Mid-Town Limited Partnership, and he has another firm he calls, simply, Bangasser & Associates.

Then there’s JTSIP, Inc., a subsidiary of Vashon College that owns the J.T. Sheffield Building on Vashon — he, Stratton and Vashon lawyer Ted Clabaugh are listed as the governing principles; The Salish Sea Network, a new web-based venture to collect data on islands throughout the region; the Center for Business and Commerce, a part of Vashon College, and CHS Vashon, Inc., an entity that owns Courthouse Square, a professional center Bangasser developed.

He and his wife Melissa, along with their daughter Lauren, moved to Vashon 20 years ago, and he’s been a high-profile member of the Island community for years. He was one of the most out-spoken critics of the proposed Public Utility District (PUD) four years ago; was the president of the Vashon-Maury Chamber of Commerce; and is now the name most closely affiliated with Vashon College.

These days, his wife, a software trainer with SunGard Higher Education, travels a great deal; his daughter, now grown, works at the Chewonki Foundation, an outdoor leadership school in Maine; and Bangasser spends much of his time in a windowless office at the end of a long hall on the second floor of the Sheffield Building, where Vashon College is based.

It’s a quiet place, with countless empty offices, and Bangasser’s office seems spare. No pictures hang on the wall, and no personal effects clutter his desk.

But he’s happy here, he said, content to spend hours on his computer, poring over information, collecting data and building the database for The Salish Sea Network, his latest fixation.

During a long interview, Bangasser, congenial and relaxed, described an upbringing centered around education, social justice and family. One of nine kids, he was raised in a gracious home on the edge of Seattle’s Volunteer Park — by a mother committed to the Civil Rights movement and an entrepreneurial father who, like Bangasser today, was an unrelenting businessman.

Indeed, his father, at age 75, needed a walker to help him recover from his fifth open-heart surgery and realized there might be a market in the devises. So began Miracle Walkers, a business still registered with the Secretary of State.

The importance of a good education was a constant in the household, Bangasser recalled. “The joke was – it was easier to go to college than to argue with my mother about it,” he said.

Bangasser went to Seattle University, where he majored in business and accounting and got a master’s degree in business administration. In between his educational stints, he enlisted in the Army and served as a lieutenant during the Vietnam War.

When he returned, Bangasser joined forces with his father, helping him run the various family enterprises — including the family’s real estate holdings at 23rd and Union.

On Vashon, his business dealings have been complex, intertwined, as they are, with Vashon College and his ownership of the Sheffield Building and Courthouse Square.

According to Stratton, when the Sheffield Building came on the market seven years ago, the owners said they’d donate it to a not-for-profit, education-oriented institution that could pay off its $300,000 mortgage, and Bangasser came up with a plan: He created Vision Vashon — the precursor to Vashon College — to receive the building as a gift; but because there wasn’t time to establish it as a nonprofit, he asked the Island’s Rotary Foundation to accept the building.

He then borrowed around $1 million from his family, paid off the building’s debt, installed a state-of-the-art communications system, created conference rooms and office space and named it after his maternal grandfather — J.T. Sheffield, a successful businessman who never got beyond a seventh-grade education.

Bangasser’s vision was to create a bustling center of Island activity — a building filled by both for-profit enterprises and nonprofits, with the for-profits helping to offset the nonprofits’ rent. “We had a lot of big visions about how we could use a mixed-use building for the benefit of the Island,” Stratton said.

Ultimately, once Vashon College was established, the Rotary Foundation turned it over to the new nonprofit, receiving — as a kind of thank you for the role it played — a $50,000 gift from Bangasser.

Stratton has respect for the role Bangasser played in developing both Vashon College and the Sheffield Building. “Tom contributed an enormous amount of time, energy and money to make this work,” he said.

At the same time, Stratton added, the building has yet to live up to its potential, in large part because the market for what Sheffield offered — affordable rent for small businesses that could benefit from shared amenities — just didn’t exist on Vashon. Indeed, even Stratton, a lawyer, moved his office out of Sheffield earlier this year, realizing, he said, that it was much more affordable to work out of his home.

Today, the building — owned by JTSIP, Inc., with the shares held by Vashon College — is struggling. More than $62,000 in back taxes are owed. And the largest tenant, the Vashon Island School District, vacated the building two years ago.

Yet another disappointment has been the failed effort to get a jet-propulsion machine-tool business up and running in the Sheffield warehouse, an enterprise that was meant to help offset the costs of running the college. The college received the $200,000 Omax machine at no cost, with the idea that the small business it would spawn would bring in enough money to enable the college to pay it off over time.

Powell, who ran the enterprise for two years, said the Omax donation amounted to a no-interest loan. Unfortunately, he added, “The business was not successful enough to meet the minimum monthly amount on a regular basis.”

In May, the company took the machine back.

Meanwhile, the status has changed at Courthouse Square as well.

In an effort to jumpstart the Sheffield Building, Bangasser — who developed Courthouse Square — gave shares in Courthouse Square to Vashon Collegea few years ago; the idea, said Stratton, was to use the rental income from Courthouse Square to subsidize the operational costs at Sheffield.

“He walked away from the rental income of Courthouse Square to try to get his vision going,” Stratton said.

But when a bank loan on Courthouse Square came due last fall, Stratton and Bangasser could not convince U.S. Bank to renew it in the name of the college, a nonprofit, Stratton said. As a result, he added, “We gifted the property back to Tom, because otherwise we’d lose the property.”

Meanwhile, Vashon College seems also to be struggling: Vashon 101, its flagship course, has yet to be offered this year. In fact, the only offering so far this year has been a small beach naturalist program. Under “upcoming classes” on its website, one finds the words, “There are no items to display.”

Some find all the property transactions around Sheffield, Courthouse Square and Vashon College questionable — dealings so complex, it’s hard to know if anyone’s benefiting or how. Those initial investors in the Sheffield Building, for instance, did so at a 12 percent interest rate — considered a decent return for something as low-risk as commercial real estate. Indeed, if Vashon College can’t find a way to pay off the building’s back taxes, it’s possible Sheffield will be turned over to those investors, Stratton said.

“We can’t let it just sit there and accumulate debt,” he said.

Stratton, however, said no one is lining their pockets with any of these deals. When Courthouse Square went back to Bangasser, for instance, the appraised value was probably half of what it was a few years ago, he said.

At the same time, Both Bangasser and Stratton acknowledged that the intricacies of the various real estate deals have fostered a raft of conspiracy theories. And both realize that Bangasser is, at best, often misunderstood in the community.

“It’s very complex, and when things get complex, people get concerned,” Stratton said. “But it was Tom trying to make a vision work, and it was a vision for the good of the community.”

But because of Bangasser’s role in the community — his many fights not only with the community council but also the Island’s Chamber of Commerce — he has plenty of critics on Vashon, some of whom complain that he holds others to a higher standard than he holds himself.

“His main argument against the PUD is that it didn’t have a sustainable business model,” recalled Dan Schueler, who for a while played a lead role in the college’s Center for Digital Communications. “And yet I’ve never seen a business model for Vashon College.”

Several of the Islanders who stepped down from the community council board last month are also frustrated with Bangasser — who they say played a role in their mass exodus.

The council, former board members say, is committed to operating transparently. But King County’s legal analysis that they need to comply with the sometimes onerous demands of the state’s public disclosure act, coupled with Bangasser’s sometimes aggressive style and his latest far-reaching request for documents, felt like a sort of one-two punch, triggering the board’s mass resignation, some said.

Hilary Emmer, a former board member, is exasperated with Bangasser. “I just think he’s gone too far to prove a point, and I’m not really sure what that point is,” she said.

Emmer said she’s always had a good relationship with Bangasser and has often been struck by his personal generosity. These days, however, he seems to have a vendetta against the community council board for its refusal to support him when he was seeking documents from the county about its decision to rezone the K2 building a couple of years ago, she said.

“He’s frustrated, and he’s taking it out on everybody,” she said, adding, “It’s taking a toll on a lot of people.”

Bangasser, however, said the goal of his public disclosure request is not to harass the community council board but to better understand the role it’s playing in the county, how well it’s doing its job and whether anyone acted inappropriately when the county rezoned the K2 building. He also said he believes his request underscores a basic tenet of democracy.

“We must never forget that in a democracy, government works for us,” he said.

As for the fact that his actions have caused some to question his motives, Bangasser shrugged: “People assume I have an agenda, and when they can’t figure it out, they grow suspicious.”

His only agenda, he added, is to get the community to come together to discuss a wide range of issues — from the water shortages facing Vashon town to development and density.

At the same time, he acknowledged, his bulldog-like approach to the community council and other issues on Vashon have come at a price. Vashon College, for instance, is quieter right now, he added, because he just doesn’t have as much time to put into it.

“I know very few people who will put as much on the line as I will,” he said.

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