At Large in Ballard: The high rent district

Since I like to keep a watchful eye on the neighborhood I also consider Web sites purporting to represent Ballard to be part of my domain. Like Valu-Pak coupon envelopes, neighborhood websites often turn out to be packaged in bulk, with a hint of local flavor sprinkled on top. Recently I found a reference for a site that wasn't familiar, called inballard.com, and decided it was time for a visit.

The site was suspiciously elegant and reference to another site, inchulavista.com also struck me as odd. Why the connection between Ballard and a city just north of the border at Tijuana? The site credited Design Hovie so I followed on-line links, landing at a description of an international graphic design studio with addresses in Ballard and Milan, Italy. Twelve hours later I was ascending our own Ballard Building at the corner of Market and 22nd NW; my first time higher than the third floor - but still closer than visiting the Milan office.

The Ballard Building really deserves a book on its past and present, and I think it would be a great setting for a television series. Yoga mat tucked under one arm I climbed the stairs to what seemed like a different building. It was the difference between being offered fresh-squeezed orange juice in first class and finding that your middle seat in coach is in a non-reclining row in front of the restrooms, and your two seatmates each have child on their lap. That's the contrast between the stuffy, sub-floor offices on the second and third floors and the climate-controlled suites of the fourth and fifth. I ventured into Design Hovie Studios unnoticed and collected a business card as though on a scavenger hunt.

But in the corridor I was spotted by my second floor tax man, Doug Gold, who said without missing a beat, "Hello Peggy, visiting the high rent district of the building?"

Later from the safety of home I called the Ballard office of Design Hovie and told the man who answered I was curious about the firm and its connection to websites in Ballard and Chula Vista. "I think I can help," he said and then put me on hold. Someone else picked up, "This is Hovie," he said. I stumbled, explaining I was holding for someone else before it clicked. Hovie. As in Design Hovie.

Have I mentioned that one of the things I love about Ballard is that you can pick up the phone, call a company and talk to its president. I was impressed when I was transferred to the store manager at the Ballard Market, and they're not even international.

Hovie answered all of my questions about the business locations, why there was also a Chula Vista site, whether anyone paid to be listed on inballard.com, and his take on when Ballard had gone from "un-hip" to "hip." He later followed up with a written timeline on Ballard's progression from pre-hip to its current state of post-hip.

Hovie Hawk grew up in Chula Vista, Calif., attended the University of Washington and stayed on in the area, starting a design firm that moved from Fremont to the Ballard Building, by way of the Louisa Building. When they started the website they charged companies but it soon morphed into a more inclusive free site, designed to feature what he, his staff and volunteer contributors considered to be the coolest places in Ballard.

As for the Milan office, Hovie told me he thought it was a practical joke when a company from there called about forming a partnership; one week later he and his wife were on a plane to Italy. For two years the office was based there but they returned in order to better develop their client base. Italy's economy was depressed after Sept. 11th and they decided if they wanted to get "bigger" they would need to return.

I asked how many in his Seattle office now. "Three," he replied.

I like his definition of bigger. It seems he meant not bigger, but better clients than in the earliest days; higher end clients who value the artistic design. Their clients include the City of Seattle, Ray's Boathouse, Westin Hotels in the United States and huge name clients worldwide. But Hovie Hawk lives in Ballard as well as basing his business here, and he too worries about how the community will be changed when all of the condominiums are built and occupied, and the Scandinavian gift shops are all but gone.

Hovie thanked me for calling him. Later on he let me know that the Web site, first launched in 1998, would be undergoing a major overhaul of its "look and functionality." His announcement described inballard.com, "as a site focused only on Ballard and developed and updated by people who live and work in Ballard."

I haven't visited inballard.com since its overhaul; on sunny days I prefer the physical world to the virtual. But the entire day that I first visited Hovie Design Studios, I was in such a good mood, as though I'd discovered gold coins under a rock instead of sow bugs. I'd ventured to a new website and found it truly local. I had ventured to new Ballard Building heights and discovered a thriving international company using creativity as its raw material. Strangely enough on the day that I explored a building so rich in past history I felt more hopeful about the present and future than I had in a long, long time - and that was even before I found the five-dollar bill on the street.

Peggy's email is atlargeinballard@yahoo.com. She writes additional pieces for the PI's Ballard Webtown at http://blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com/ballard/.

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