In 2007, a marketing class at WSU surveyed undergraduates to determine what businesses they would most want to see in Pullman. At the top of their list: Red Robin, American Eagle, and Circuit City. They shared their findings with the Pullman Chamber of Commerce in hopes that these companies could be convinced to open establishments in Pullman. For years chamber officials have been trying to lure such companies to Pullman. In the mid-1990s, hopes were raised when Applebees showed interest. The company sent representatives to assess Pullman and found a great location—in Moscow. Flat land and a lower minimum wage would reduce construction and operating costs the company reasoned and, if they located at the western edge of town, Pullmanites would make the quick commute down the highway.

Fritz Hughes, president of the Chamber, admits that Pullman has a complicated relationship with growth. For a long time, planners believed the city would develop to the north. They built a bridge to what they thought would be plentiful commercial real estate; it was informally christened “the bridge to nowhere” when this pattern of development did not materialize (now it leads to Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories). Hughes says Pullman’s dedication to agriculture may have something to do with its blasé attitude towards urban development. Certainly, a few stubborn farmers refused to give up parcels of land for frivolous roads and shops.

Downtown Pullman.
Downtown Pullman
(Photo Robert Hubner)

Today, Pullman residents spend millions just about anywhere but Pullman. This pattern began when the first few settlers in the mid-1800s did their trading in Moscow, which was a bit more established with 100 residents. Eventually, in 1881, Pullman residents opened their own store, but if records of sluggish sales are any indication, customers have been slipping away to do buying ever since. This trend is particularly hard on the public sector—the parks, the police force, the fire department—that depends on the funds generated from the local economy.

Thank goodness for Duane Brelsford, Jr. In his effort to develop the Pullman economy and reverse this trend, Brelsford is earning a reputation as a hometown hero.

Born and raised in Pullman, Brelsford is a born risk-taker. In 1980, a photo of him plunging head first from the roof of his WSU fraternity house into a snow bank made the cover of the Seattle Times. After college, Brelsford moved to Los Angeles to become a stuntman. But he never lost his interest in building. He had taken almost enough courses in construction management to qualify as a major. His grandfather had worked as a plasterer at WSU and his father dabbled in Pullman real estate development. After six months of stunt training, he realized that his tolerance for risk could be put to more profitable use as a project manager for new hotel construction in California. By his late twenties, the value of Brelsford’s completed projects totaled $100 million.

Duane Brelsford, Jr.
Duane Brelsford, Jr.
(Photo Shelly Hanks)

Equipped with this experience, he returned to his hometown in 1998 with his wife Terri and their two daughters and created Corporate Pointe Developers. He immediately set about to increase the supply of student housing. He developed 1,400 apartments, transforming the east side of campus into a village of apartment complexes and forcing other landlords to step up their game. In 2001, when Corner Drug on Main Street burned to the ground, he bought the lot. Town Centre, the building he put up in its spot, houses Sam Dial Jewelers on the street level and the offices of the WSU Foundation on the second level. “Without Duane,” says Hughes, “the Corner Drug would be a parking lot.” Next, Brelsford built Bridgeway Centre I, where Identity Spa and Taco Del Mar are located, with stylish apartments on the second level.

City planners speak of a vibrant downtown and a mix of retail and living spaces—but Brelsford gave the idea momentum. Brelsford also introduced downtown’s Walk of Fame, an idea he borrowed from the stars on Hollywood Boulevard.

To fill his buildings, Brelsford often acts as a one-man chamber of commerce, pitching Pullman to the corporate headquarters of businesses he envisions here. He encouraged Quiznos executives to locate a shop in his downtown building. “I told them, ‘We’ve got students from all over the state who rely on your sandwiches—the advertising is effective—and now you’re going to let them go four years without it?” It worked, and the Quiznos in downtown Pullman has been a top performer for the sandwich chain. Brelsford has a list of 80 companies he hopes he can persuade to come to Pullman. At the top are outlets for women’s clothing. “Forever 21 would do really well here,” he says. Every year he goes to the franchise convention in Las Vegas to extol the virtues of Pullman to as many vendors as possible.

Often, Brelsford recognizes a need for a type of business in Pullman and has no choice but to fill the void himself. “My daughters would go to Moscow to the multiplex,” he says, sitting in his sun-filled office in the Corporate Pointe building on Bishop Boulevard, “and we’d worry ourselves sick about them getting home safely at night.” His daughters’ movie nights made him realize that Pullman needed its own multiplex so he built the building and established the company that runs the theater. More recently, he built and operates the Pullman Athletic Club. Under the umbrella of Corporate Pointe Developers, Brelsford owns 29 service and rental companies.

This past December, WSU announced that Corporate Pointe Developers put together the winning team that will design, build, and manage a new on-campus hotel and conference center. Brelsford beat out prominent firms based in Virginia, Chicago, and Spokane. The estimated $20 million project will go hand-in-hand with the new golf course. Not only is it the largest project Corporate Pointe Developers has taken on, but it is perhaps one of the most important. The hotel and conference center, which will include condominiums, has the potential to transform how residents and visitors experience Pullman. “Alumni can come and stay in nice accommodations,” Brelsford explains, “They can play golf and tennis in the summer and stick around for the beginning of football season. All of these state-of-the-art facilities will be within walking distance.”

It might just represent a turning point for Pullman. Mayor Glenn Johnson believes it is a precursor of good things to come and that Brelsford has led the way for others to do business in Pullman. “He’s shown that developers can make money here. Alumni are going to see his success and want to do businesses here. Our franchises are doing well. The Holiday Inn Express is one of the most successful out there. Same with Quiznos.” As corporate America finds its way to Pullman, other local developers and business people have begun to follow Brelsford’s lead, if on a smaller scale. Mike Yates is turning the old antique mall at the corner of Main Street and Grand Avenue into sleek apartments with retail on the first level. He and his wife also opened the Plum Orchard shop on Main Street in 2006.

With so many businesses for which he is responsible, Brelsford’s ability to tolerate risk has been put to the test. Every month, the combined total of his mortgages is millions of dollars. Brelsford admits to suffering a bit of stress, a feeling that once was foreign to him. He says he would be willing to sell a company or two if the right buyers show interest. But, having just turned 50, Brelsford has no intention of slowing down any time soon. After he completes the hotel and conference center, he’ll once again turn his sights to the area that surrounds campus. He owns plots of land all over Pullman where only he can see the buildings he has yet to build, and he has much more work to do downtown to make it the bustling community center he envisions. In the meantime, he’s taken up yoga at his Pullman Athletic Club.

The young Duane Brelsford, Jr. Courtesy Duane Brelsford, Jr.
The young Duane Brelsford, Jr.
(Courtesy Duane Brelsford, Jr.)