This is one of a collection of stories about philanthropy in Snohomish County.
EDMONDS — “I’ve been thinking,” the email began.
A message with such a casual opening line would detail a plan to provide a $2 million financial transfusion to a project that had been talked about for nearly two decades — replacing the Edmonds Senior Center.
The offer from local businessman Rick Steves also included a pledge of another $1 million as a match if the same amount could be raised locally.
The announcement, made last year, was just the latest in a series of local projects to which Steves has made major contributions. Steves, 62, founded and is the owner of Rick Steves’ Europe in Edmonds. His travel shows are broadcast on Public Broadcasting Service stations nationally, including KCTS in Seattle. His travel column runs in The Daily Herald’s Venture section on Sundays.
Other donations by Steves include a 24-unit YWCA housing project in Lynnwood valued at $4 million; $2 million for a community center planned at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood; and a $1 million pledge over 10 years to the Edmonds Center for the Arts.
“It’s not often a nonprofit gets to hear those words,” said Joe McIalwain, the arts center’s executive director.
Part of the money given to the Edmonds Center for Arts pays the annual expenses for the Cascade Symphony Orchestra to perform there. His contributions did more than provide the organization financial security.
Before his donation, “people had never heard of us,” said Roberta McBride, the symphony’s principal violist and its executive director.
Steves also made a guest appearance with the group, which featured pictures from seven countries he’s traveled to, paired with music with ties to each nation.
“Ever since that time, we have had sold out performances,” McBride said. “Right there you can see the impact has been enormous for us.”
Mary Anne Dillon, executive director of the YWCA Snohomish County, said Steves’ first donation to her organization took place more than two decades ago.
Eight duplexes he owned near Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood — maintained with help from the Edmonds Noon Rotary and other volunteers — were used to house homeless and low-income women.
As maintenance costs increased, Steves began considering what other properties might be available.
They settled on another complex on 46th Avenue W in Lynnwood, which Steves bought in 2005.
“We named it Trinity, because of the partnership between Steves, the YWCA and the noontime Rotary, and because it was an extension of the larger vision of the original Trinity Place behind Trinity Lutheran Church,” Dillon said.
More than 800 women and children have been housed at the two complexes over the years. “That’s a conservative estimate,” Dillon said.
The Puget Sound area’s real estate market, currently one of the hottest in the nation, puts housing out of reach for many.
Trinity Place fills a critical niche, offering a roof over families’ heads where they otherwise might be homeless.
Steves “is an inspiration,” Dillon said. “He gives us hope.”
In 2015, Steves’ pledge of $2 million was the lead gift to kick off a $10 million campaign to build a neighborhood center in Lynnwood. Two non-profits, Volunteers of America and the Boys & Girls Club of Snohomish County, will provide a variety of community services.
His donation provided the jump start to the campaign — a role that used to be filled by foundations and corporations, said Bill Tsoukalas, executive director of the local Boys & Girls Club.
But with the ongoing wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions, businesses now tend to give toward the tail end end of such campaigns, he said.
Part of Steves’ goal is to bring to Snohomish County what he’s seen in his international travels — a gathering place for people of all ages and for organizations working together,” Tsoukalas said.
That same idea of creating a gathering place for people of all ages is one Steves is helping promote in the development of the $11 million, 26,000-square-foot Waterfront Center, the building that will replace the Edmonds Senior Center.
It’s more than just providing a home for programming for older adults during the day and for community events at night.
The hope is that it will be a place for inter-generational activities, said Farrell Fleming, executive director of the senior center.
Steves’ pledges made all the difference in helping move up the project’s priority for funding in a statewide list of 32 proposed construction projects, he said.
The Legislature is expected to give final approval of $2.25 million for the project in its session which starts in January.
Fleming said it’s hard to imagine the long-awaited project to replace the aging senior center without the impetus provided by Steves’ pledges, which are likely to total $3 million.
“As soon as he did it, we knew it would happen,” he said. “It would take a lot of hard work, but it just became apparent we would do this. The need is so great.”
Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling said he has known Steves and his family for more than 40 years. Early in his marriage, Earling surprised his wife with the gift of a baby grand piano bought from the piano store owned by Steves’ father.
“He and I are friends, even though we don’t always agree on everything,” he said.
Earling said he is is amazed at Steves’ commitment to Edmonds and south Snohomish County.
“Rick could have his business anywhere he wanted to have it,” Earling said. “Getting back to the deep commitment he has to the community, he still enjoys being here every day that he can.
“He is generous, thoughtful, and frankly should be inspirational to many people in our community.”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org