Jerry Dicker, Spokane’s newest land mogul, looks like Martin Scorsese and loves Neato Burrito.
He declines to make a chest-puffing speech to the two dozen people who have gathered, late last month, to hear about his purchase of the struggling Bing Crosby Theater. He’s not especially interested in talking with the media, but he answers questions shyly and politely. He guards his privacy, refusing to reveal his age, other than to say he was born after 1939. He’s dressed in a black leather flight jacket and a knotted purple scarf, and, offhandedly, he mentions that “Facebook scares me.”
“We’re very interested in a vibrant downtown, as a citizen and as a hotel operator,” Dicker says, referring to his purchase of the Bing. (He often speaks in the royal “we.”)
The theater, which opened as the Clemmer in 1915 and helped singer Bing Crosby launch his career, is not Dicker’s first foray into downtown. A couple of years ago, he bought the Rodeway Inn, a squat motel next to the outsized Davenport Hotel. Dicker made it chic, called it Hotel Ruby and added the Sapphire Lounge.
Dicker came to Spokane in the mid-2000s not to get rich — he was already wealthy — but because his grandkids moved to the area. Originally from the Bronx in New York City, Dicker later moved to California, where he graduated from the University of California in Los Angeles and got involved in real estate. The projects followed: in California, in New Mexico, in Texas.
In the Inland Northwest, his empire has grown rapidly. Dicker or his company, GVD Commercial Properties Inc., owns the Hotel Ruby, the Burgans block on Division Street, antique homes such as the Comstock-Shadle House (where he lives) and the Moen House (where GVD Commercial Properties keeps its Spokane offices), the Dance Center of Spokane and the property of the Red Lion Hotel on Division Street.
He owns other properties in Spokane Valley and in several cities in Idaho. His purchase of the Bing from Mitch Silver (Dicker paid $913,815, according to the county assessor’s office) follows one of his dreams.
“I always felt that, toward the end of my career, I’d like to do something with the arts,” Dicker says, adding that the Bing reminds him of theaters in the Bronx where he used to see vaudeville shows. “We wouldn’t have bought into it without knowing Michael.”
Michael Smith, the Bing’s manager, sits in his office, a claustrophobic nook overlooking Sprague Avenue from the theater’s second floor. The wall is coated with old show posters — the Specials, Leon Redbone, Sister Hazel. Smith, who’s been with the Bing for 25 years, is typing out two pages’ worth of ideas for the Bing’s future. He wants to bring in news columnists and prominent speakers and host music workshops and institutes.
The ideas flood out now because, with Dicker, everything’s changing. Dicker, Smith says, began immediately working to fix the Bing’s many ailments: a roof that’s needed replacement for years, shoddy sidewalks. The furnace, too.
The Bing’s downstairs furnace had broken in January when multi-instrumentalist David Lindley performed. Smith had to arrange a triage, gathering space heaters and blankets into one room to keep Lindley’s guitars and stringed instruments in tune. Dicker fixed that immediately.
“The very first day that Jerry owned it, he put a new furnace in downstairs,” Smith says. “I got a new furnace by noon.
“Jerry went into this project with his eyes wide open,” Smith says. “He knew that it was going to take a lot of repair to bring it back to a national standard.”
Smith’s impression of Dicker was shaped as the latter bought the Rodeway Inn and transformed it into the Hotel Ruby.
“I used to send performers there to stay, and it was terrible,” Smith says, adding that it was the cheapest, closest place.
Dicker’s attention to detail — in the Hotel Ruby’s rooms and in the artwork by Ric Gendron that adorns the hotel’s eastern exterior wall — struck Smith. Once they began talking, Smith told Dicker he was the right owner for the Bing.
“I said, ‘You’re the guy, you should have the theater,’” Smith recalls telling Dicker. “We started talking and dreaming about it.”
The Bing doesn’t turn a profit, according to Smith. Ever.
“Theaters don’t make money, really,” Smith says. But Smith hopes that by adding shows and saving money (he and Dicker plan to install more efficient stage lighting), the theater will close the gap on its losses.
“Making a profit will always be a goal,” he says.
But he doesn’t see the nearby Fox Theater or the Knitting Factory as potential drags on the Bing’s future prospects.
Dana Haynes agrees, adding that the Bing is a unique draw.
“It’s one of our crown jewels, to have those venues within a one-block radius,” says Haynes, communications director at Visit Spokane. “You don’t have to look any further back to Newt Gingrich’s visit. … The first thing out of his mouth was complimenting the [Bing Theater].”
And while Smith says the economic downturn hasn’t hurt the Bing yet, it’s slowed spending across Spokane County. In 2009, the latest year for which numbers are available, $740 million were spent here in Spokane County. That is down about 11 percent from the $830 million spent in 2008.
Standing in the dimly lit theater, Dicker talks about his other projects. Construction of the Burgans block on North Division Street will begin this summer. The latest vision is to build 40 apartments and up to 20,000 square feet of retail space there, including at least three restaurants.
That project and the Bing will occupy most of his time for the near future. But as he rattles off projects he’s finished and land parcels he owns, Dicker concedes that he’ll keep an open mind.
After all, as Dicker says, “We’re rich in property.”