Community investors to purchase, preserve Mercer Island’s historic Roanoke Inn

The Roanoke Inn, a community institution on Mercer Island for more than 102 years, will be preserved for years to come under a new ownership structure.

The efforts of the Mercer Island Investors Group, Inc., led by John Naye and Christian Schiller, to acquire the popular watering hole started with an unconventional idea: what if Islanders could own the Rowy the way the Green Bay community owns the Packers?

The paperwork has been filed and the transition is underway, but it’s a change in ownership and nothing more, Naye said.

“The main goal of the Mercer Island Investors Group is a conservative one, to maintain the original character, spirit and environment of the Roanoke,” according to a letter from Naye and Schiller to potential investors.

The new owners’ hope to “ensure the essence of what makes the Roanoke such a critical part of the fabric of our community will remain unchanged,” the letter continues.

“It’s not a buyout of the Roanoke with the intention to change it, but to preserve it as a legacy asset for the community forever,” Naye said. “[The Roanoke] is really the community’s ‘Cheers.’”

The group is targeting acquiring ownership at the end of the year, and is starting to send letters asking for investment reservation amounts of $25,000 to $100,000. This is to make sure “the ethos of this investment stays true to the broad-based community ownership spirit of the deal.”

The historic bar was built by George McGuire in 1914, and served people as they waited for the old ferry a block away, according to the Mercer Island Historical Society.

McGuire’s debts caused him to lose the inn, which was then sold several times. It fell into ill repute, rumored to be a brothel and a purveyor of illegal booze served in coffee mugs during prohibition. After prohibition it became a tavern, where groceries, ice cream and pop were sold.

The Roanoke Inn has been owned by the Reeck family since 1943, and the current owner, Dorothy Reeck, will stay involved in Roanoke operations as a member of the board of directors and a consultant to the Roanoke’s management. The managers, bartenders, servers and other staff will stay on board, Naye said.

“Dorothy is now at the point where she is ready to transition ownership from her family to the Mercer Island family,” according to the letter. “Dorothy has been very receptive to our idea of a community-based legacy investment … and know[s] that her beloved Roanoke is expected to maintain its prominent role in the Mercer Island community.”

The Roanoke was designated as an official historical landmark in 1976 and celebrated its centennial year in 2014. It is home to many Mercer Island High School reunions and an annual Veterans Day celebration.

“We believe the Roanoke is not just a bar and restaurant, rather it is an iconic establishment that plays an instrumental role in the community, both as a meeting and social gathering venue, as well as giving back to Mercer Island by sponsoring the Mercer Island fireworks celebration and several local sports teams,” the letter continues.

Going to the Rowy has become a right of passage for younger Islanders when they turn 21, as minors aren’t allowed in the restaurant. Naye said that the night before Thanksgiving, when many college students return to the Island, is one of the busiest evenings of the year at the Roanoke.

The slogan of the Island’s oldest business is “where friends meet friends.”

It seems that every Islander has fond memories of the historic inn. Naye, a former Navy pilot, has been to many of the Roanoke’s festivities for veterans, and was introduced to his wife on its front porch.

The Roanoke’s annual Veterans Day celebration is Friday, Nov. 11. It is located at 1825 72nd Ave. SE.