Coal mining once turned the area known today as Newcastle into a boomtown. More than 150 years later, it’s all about the golf course.
In 1853, locals noticed a black, slippery substance that settled on a small creek bed tucked in a wooded hillside known today as Cougar Mountain. This conspicuous discovery was coal, and a decade later, hills once populated by cougars, bears, raccoons, and other wildlife teemed with coal miners who blasted, carved, and whittled their way deep into steep slopes to unearth this rich commodity.
Between 1863 and 1963, approximately 11 million tons of coal was extracted from the hills, creating a company town nicknamed the “Pennsylvania of the Pacific Coast.” At its peak, in 1901, the area boasted more than 400 homes and a population of nearly 3,000 people. It also had all the trappings of a booming company town — two schools, saloon, general store, theater, hotel, post office, hospital, and dance hall. In the 1920s, the various mining companies even assembled their own recreational baseball teams. Today, this town is known as Newcastle.
“This area is really what helped drive the economy of Seattle for a period of time,” explained Newcastle Chamber of Commerce executive director Randy Ohlendorf. “The coal was literally black gold.”
Boom turned to bust, however, and by the early 1900’s cheaper coal could be extracted from other areas and transported by way of the Transcontinental Railroad. Pacific Coal Company, one of the largest coal mining companies in the area, shut down by 1930. Coal mining operations in Newcastle ceased entirely by 1963.
Evidence of Newcastle’s earliest industry still can be found in the city’s street names. The main arterial is Coal Creek Parkway. China Creek is named after the Chinese coal miners who worked in the area beginning in the 1880s. Hikers still scour the Cougar Mountain hillsides looking for remnants of mining ghost towns.
Newcastle encompasses approximately 4.5 square miles and was incorporated in 1994. Yet, it largely lives in the shadows of Bellevue, Renton, and Issaquah. It has its own city hall, which employs 28 people, but relies on King County for its library and law enforcement, the Issaquah and Renton school districts to educate its children, and Bellevue for its fire protection. The monthly newspaper closed in February, when its publisher went out of business. In May, Renton-based Valley Medical Center announced it would close its satellite facility, Newcastle Urgent Care, as part of a restructuring process that will lay off 60 employees throughout the organization.
Coal was king in Newcastle more than 100 years ago. Newcastle’s present-day claim to fame is its golf course.
The Golf Club at Newcastle occupies 350 acres and is anchored by a 44,000-square-foot clubhouse that sits castle-like atop a hill. The views are inimitable and stretch to downtown Seattle, Bellevue, and the Olympic Peninsula. The $70 million course opened in two phases in 1999 and 2001 on a former landfill purchased in 1994 by Scott Oki, a retired Microsoft executive. Last year, Oki sold the Golf Club at Newcastle and seven other courses to a Hong Kong-based investment company for a total of $137 million.
“Scott had a great vision, and I’m so thankful he had his vision up here,” said Newcastle city council member and former Mayor John Dulcich during lunch at the pub inside the Calcutta Grill overlooking the Golf Club at Newcastle’s felt green fairways. “All the value it added in terms of trickle-down benefits for property values has been huge. Homes built on a golf course versus homes built on a dump, there would have been two different property valuations.”
As a result, said Dulcich, Newcastle sees significant revenue from property taxes ($4.7 million in 2016), real estate excise taxes ($1.06 million in 2016), and development fees ($1.4 million in 2016). The city’s overall revenue last year totaled approximately $22 million.
Dulcich moved to the area in 1991 after he sold his home in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood. The draws were the same for him then as they are today for most Newcastle residents: proximity and accessibility. Newcastle is close to Interstate 90, Interstate 405, downtown Bellevue, and Renton. Fewer than 13 miles separate Newcastle from downtown Seattle.
“The good news is that we have a friendly and great business climate. The bad news is that there’s no business,” said Dulcich, who was being good-humored and facetious, but had a point. You won’t find tech campuses filled with millennial coders here. Instead, Newcastle’s economy is largely service- and retail-oriented. Last year, the city collected approximately $1.6 million in retail sales tax revenue. The golf club is Newcastle’s largest employer. Its most tenured businesses — Yea’s Wok, Tapatio Mexican Grill, Safeway, and QFC — predate Newcastle’s incorporation. “We are a suburb; we’re going to be a suburb. We are a place for Eastside executives and their families to live. That’s what we are.”
Ohlendorf, the Chamber’s executive director, agreed.
“We are definitely a bedroom community, a gateway community,” he said, noting that more than 30,000 drivers use busy Coal Creek Parkway every day to reach Bellevue, Renton, and Issaquah. “Part of the trick is trying to find ways to get people to stop and spend a few bucks here, and not just on gas, but on some of the other things we have to offer.”
Those other things include the aforementioned restaurants — Yea’s Wok and Tapatio Mexican Grill are popular among locals, and often generate lines and waiting lists during dinner rush hours — seven miles of hiking trails that wind through Newcastle’s wooded terrain, and parkland totaling 40 acres.
During lunch with Dulcich at the club, he pushed aside his plate and made room on the table to unfold a printed satellite image of Newcastle. From this view, the city looks like the bedroom community he described: Boxy and platted single-family homes abutted lined and residential streets, creating swaths of zipper-like scars across the city. The golf course’s green, amoebic-shaped open space blotted Newcastle’s Northeast end. Downtown, which occupies 26 acres (smaller than some of the housing developments that surround it), was a tiny gray smudge.
Last year marked the beginning of a residential construction boom that will add 1,137 apartments and 149 single-family homes to the city’s housing inventory by 2020. This growth in rental housing stock is something new for Newcastle, where 71 percent of residents are homeowners. The biggest project is Newcastle Commons, a $300 million, 54-acre mixed-use development that will build more than 700 apartments and rental townhomes, and more than 100 townhomes for sale.
Newcastle Retail Group plans to develop The Shops at Newcastle Commons, which will consist of four buildings that would offer just under 23,000 square feet of commercial space that would be ideal for a coffee shop, sushi bar, alehouse, or bank.
Also in the works is Aegis Gardens — a $50 million, 110-unit upscale residential community for Chinese-American seniors that sits on 7.5 acres and stretches to the Lake Boren shoreline. The facility is scheduled to open this fall.
Ohlendorf noted the two single-story strip malls that comprise downtown Newcastle predate the city’s incorporation. The QFC and Safeway stores that anchor each of these malls (and face one another across Coal Creek Parkway) were around in 1989, when Ohlendorf and his wife bought a home in Newcastle and began raising a family.
Like Dulcich, he also noted there isn’t much land available downtown — or in Newcastle, overall — for commercial development. But one option could be to tear down the existing strip malls and build taller buildings with more retail space.
“I don’t know if (the property owners) are particularly interested in that potential at this time,” said Ohlendorf. “Fortunately, or unfortunately, there is enough business there that the owners of these respective properties are happy with the income flow.”
Is another economic boom, such as the discovery of coal more than 150 years ago, on the horizon for Newcastle? It’s hard to tell. But the influx of new residents expected to move to the city over the next five years could help spur more amenities that drive the local economy.
“When these new projects come online and people become accustomed to shopping and eating in Newcastle, I think it will open the eyes of folks who previously were thinking there wasn’t much opportunity,” said Ohlendorf. “The folks who do take advantage of that now are going to be rewarded because I really believe there is a lot of untapped upside to this area.”