The River and Ron Hall

The Spokane River and the people who love it have a talented new friend who’s given us a new way to look at things.

In the prime of his last career, Ron Hall preferred to have his meetings on golf courses. It wasn’t just because likes golf (he does). And it wasn’t because he likes to socialize (although he really does like to socialize). Rather, it was because building good golf courses is not as easy as it might look. As the person responsible for moving the dirt necessary to make a vision become a reality, bringing architects and clients into the midst of the challenge was just the best way to explain the options.

Hall’s soft voice and down-to-earth manner belie at least a couple important things about him. The first is the appetite for problem-solving that made him such a good golf course builder. The second is a deep passion for community and the environment that stem from his childhood in the Adirondack mountains in New York state.

As fate would have it, you wrap those things together, bring Hall’s radar-like curiosity in reach of the problem and, lo and behold, the Spokane River and the people trying to protect and restore it have an inspiring new friend who’s given us a new way to look at things. It’s the pilot project of a new Google Earth-launched, interactive virtual tour of the river and the sources and forces that affect its aesthetics and ecological health.

“I think part of the river thing that interests me,” he explains, “is the human impact on it. With the golf course work, we were coming in and messing with Mother Nature. Okay? And the more you mess with it, my uncle Willy used to say, the more you mess it up. But he used a different four letter word, and that was construction site talk.”

One way to appreciate Ron Hall’s work is to simply take a walk on it. The culmination of a successful run in the golf course construction business brought him and his wife, Lisa, to Spokane in 1991 when their company won the contract to build the city’s William G. Robinson-designed golf course, The Creek at Qualchan. Because of unforeseen regulatory restrictions on what you could do with the layout between a state highway and the spectacular cliffs, the golf course that Hall wound up building was different from the one Robinson originally designed. Yet it was done on time, and on budget.

“Qualchan is one of my favorites just because of the personal story that went with it and the fact that I believe if you can play there, you can play anywhere.”

Qualchan was also one of the jobs that simultaneously tested his analytical and communication skills, and led him increasingly toward computer-based applications.

The 16th hole at Qualchan

“What ended up happening with me is that I did so much construction work that I figured out some things that nobody else figured out,” Hall says. “And a lot of it was because I not only did the construction work, I had to do the layout work. So I figured out how to do things with a minimal amount of dirt moving.”

He began by using a computer spreadsheet program to compile precise topographical measurements of the land as it existed, so that he could examine and project a “balance” in the excavation and contouring required to execute the design. Hall, who has a masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Economics, excelled at this part of his craft. But that still left the communications challenge of explaining how to adjust original plans in ways that would make more sense economically and aesthetically given actual conditions at the site. He did this, at first, by making creative use of things like large pvc stakes with elevation markers on them to illustrate problems and proposed adjustments.

“So then the computers come along,” Hall says, “and I thought maybe let’s try doing it with 3D.”

This wasn’t just any “light bulb” moment of insight. It became a part of a big change in his life.

“That’s where the whole exodus started,” Hall says. “I had to learn more about where I was on the face of the earth. And I had to learn more about computers.”

Something else was happening at the same time. Hall and his wife were settling into Spokane and deciding, after being happily mobile for twenty years, to adopt a child (a daughter, Shaelyn, from China) and buy a house. And it’s not just any house, but a painstakingly renovated and expanded farm house in the poetically gnarly canyons and pines southwest of Spokane. Because one of Hall’s passions is composing computerized models of buildings you can actually view a 3D mock up of the house, and several other structures on the farm.

Hall has an Ivy League education (he has degrees from Princeton and Cornell as well as his MBA from Wharton) but he’s always preferred the close social knitting of rural communities, and of the neighborhoods and networks he began to notice in Spokane.

“The more we (he and Lisa) were around Spokane,” Hall says, “the more we liked the fact that it was a bunch of small town things around a large city.”

Hall was impressed not only by the hospitality he enjoyed from Spokane’s golfing community but the network of aviation buffs in the Felts Field community and, more recently, the network of community-minded social and environmental organizations nested in the new Saranac Building and the adjacent Community Building where the Center for Justice is located. (Click here to view Ron’s model of the Saranac Building.)

Added to this, there was one other serendipitous fact about where Ron Hall was beginning to call home: just a few miles away at Eastern Washington University were solid programs in geography, urban planning and computer science that he could bring together into an interdisciplinary master’s degree. Hall has been educated in some of the nation’s finest schools, and he gives Eastern high praise.

“What became apparent to me were the social applications of the tool I was working with,” he says. “I was looking at it specifically in a construction and communication setting and I realized in the exposure I was getting at Eastern to GIS that there was tremendous social potential.”

That potential fits nicely with Hall’s social philosophy.

“What’s interesting to me,” he says, “is I’ve always felt, within reason, the more people you get involved in that type of process, that if you could orchestrate it properly, you’d come up with a better result.”

“While I understand the great man theory,” he added with hint of a grin, “I lend myself more to the great society.”

As he was settling into Spokane, Hall developed more than a passing interest in the Spokane River and its watershed. After all, the notoriously untamed creek that runs through the golf course he was building joins the river just a few miles downstream. What he noticed about the Spokane River is that, despite its problems, it wasn’t yet being strangled by over development.

“You have to go a long ways in this country,” he says, “before you’ll find the natural features that the Spokane River has.”

But the thing that really pulled him in to begin studying the river was a May 2004 newspaper story by veteran Spokesman-Review investigative reporter Karen Dorn Steele. The article reported on the hundreds of continuing instances in which raw sewage in the city’s combined sanitary/stormwater disposal system overflowed into either the river or Hangman Creek.

“With the golf course work, we were coming in and messing with Mother Nature. Okay? And the more you mess with it, my uncle Willy used to say, the more you mess it up. But he used a different four letter word, and that was construction site talk.”

In engineering golf courses on waterways, Hall says, he’s used to learning about and dealing with fifty or one hundred year “events” like floods that have to be accounted for in design and construction.

“So when they say these combined sewer overflows only happen during a major event,” he says, “I was thinking a fifty or hundred year event. So when I saw the next line that there were like four hundred of them last year, my reaction was ‘these aren’t events, this is a regular occurrence.’ That really stunned me.”

His response to Dorn-Steele’s article led him to two central conclusions about the Spokane River.

The first is that the value of the river is, as he puts it, “in the river, not on the bank.” “The way I look at it is the actual quality of the water in the river, if that is improved to the point where people could swim in it safely, eat the fish out of it safely, and we could brag about that, that to me would drive property values more than any kind of thing that’s on the bank. The value of the river is in the river, it’s not on the bank.”

The second conclusion is one he took as a personal challenge: the importance of motivating and helping people get involved in efforts to restore the river.

And that was the inspiration that prompted him to approach the Center for Justice to work with him on the Google Earth Demonstration Project that debuts this week. You will need Google Earth to view the project, and you can download it for free here. After downloading Google Earth, click here to access the Spokane River Google Earth Demo.

Notwithstanding the wonders now available on a computer screen, Hall would be the first to remind anyone that the best way to appreciate the Spokane River is to see it for yourself.

“In July we hosted a reunion for these people across the United States that we went to China with [when he and Lisa adopted their daughter] and they were shocked,” he says. “They left the Davenport Hotel where they were staying and we could have walked down to the river, below the falls. We took a three to four hour raft trip that took us down through Riverside State Park, the Bowl and Pitcher, and it was a stunning natural setting. But the first thing the river guide gives us is a lesson on urban rafting, like if you fall out, don’t stand up because you might get hit by a grocery cart. And don’t drink the water. So you’re sitting down there, in the midst of this beauty and nature, but one of the things you’ve got to be mindful about is man’s impact on the river, because of what we put into it. By the same token, it is gorgeous.”

The Spokane River Google Earth demonstration project is just a start. Hall and the Center will gather suggestions and constructive criticism on the program and plan to add to it and upgrade its features and the media presentations.

As for what Ron Hall does next he says he’s really jazzed by the “social capital” he sees in Spokane’s green community.

“If I talk to you a year from now,” he says, “I’ll probably have some other idea. For me, at fifty four years old, the other thing that happened in this process that was very personal was watching what happened in these buildings (the Saranac and the Community Building), the not-for-profit work and the advocacy and how you start putting people together in networks.”

“On a strictly technical level,” he adds, “I’ve already come up with a piece of software that I’m interested in, that has to do with building management. Actually, it’s more like green construction, because if we can make buildings more green, it will be easier to make the river green again.”

Green as in clean.

–Tim Connor

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