Tacoma business leader a ‘prince of preservation’

“When I first came into Tacoma,” said Fred Roberson, a pioneer in the revival of downtown Tacoma, “I used to refer to it as Seattle’s dirty little backyard. But after you’re here a while, it really grows on you.”

TACOMA — Six decades ago, an obscure Tacoma City Council candidate named Fred Roberson wrote an unusual political manifesto for the local newspaper.

“Listen Tacoma: If you think I am going to hand you a bouquet, you are sadly mistaken,” he wrote at age 32, announcing his entry into a five-way primary. “You may have been asleep for the last 50 years.”

A lifetime has since proven him a visionary for his city, if a terrible predictor of his own destiny.

Now 88 and a wealthy real-estate developer, Roberson has handed Tacoma much larger things than bouquets.

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In his will, he’ll give away the landmark Armory building on the Hilltop and the Carlton building downtown, both worth millions. He also has sunk fortunes into preserving other old buildings, playing a pioneering role in the revival of downtown Tacoma.

“I call him the prince of preservation here in town,” said David Fischer, executive director of the nonprofit Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, to which Roberson is bequeathing the Armory.

“We are so lucky to have had him as a part of our community. He has helped not only preserve, protect and energize a number of buildings, but he’s shown others how to do it. That’s as powerful as anything.”

Roberson, perhaps the city’s most influential and generous private developer, sat down to discuss his life and career recently in his nine-story, 109-year-old Harmon Building on Pacific Avenue.

The Harmon is one of more than a dozen commercial buildings Roberson owns, mostly downtown. It also is the project he credits with turning his focus from building apartment complexes, which made him his fortune, to reviving the city’s…

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