Dan Spalding started working as soon as he was big enough to carry a toolbox into his family’s vast auto wrecking yard off Interstate 90.
In college, he took business courses with the goal of eventually joining his father and a brother in managing the company.
But something unexpected happened. Upon graduation, Spalding abruptly sold everything he owned and traveled halfway around the globe.
It turned out most of the answers he sought awaited him back in Spokane.
Today, Spalding is known in some circles as an accomplished painter, in others as a musician. He’s also a real estate developer who played a major role in reviving the block of Main Avenue just west of Division Street. His latest acquisition is two historic buildings – the Richmond at 228 W. Sprague Ave., and the Bickett at 225 W. Riverside Ave. – that served as hotels a century ago.
Spalding reflected on his accidental career during a recent interview at Boots Bakery & Lounge, one of several businesses that lease space in his Longbotham Building, 22 W. Main Ave.
S-R: How do you describe what you do?
Spalding: I try not to. When anyone asks, I tell them I’m a musician, since that’s what I spend most of my time doing. I have five resident gigs a week with five different bands.
S-R: Do you have a personal motto?
Spalding: The last one I latched onto is a Pablo Picasso quote: “I’m always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn to do it.” Pretty much everything I do has been on-the-job training.
S-R: How about a mentor?
Spalding: I owe a great deal to (Gonzaga University art professor) Bob Gilmore, because he let me apprentice under him. He’s given me everything.
S-R: What’s a lesson he taught you?
Spalding: To be original. His style of painting is entirely different than mine. He’s purely an abstract painter, and I’m an objective realist. But he taught me broader, more philosophical lessons, like how to avoid certain traps.
S-R: You grew up third generation in a thriving family business. Did you expect to join Spalding Auto Parts someday?
Spalding: Oh, of course.
S-R: When did you start working there?
Spalding: I can’t remember not working – sweeping floors or whatever. My family has a really strong work ethic.
S-R: Did you enjoy it?
Spalding: I did, but as a kid I kind of resented that all my friends were out playing baseball or going to summer camp while I spent school nights and summers at the wrecking yard. Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But as a kid, I thought all the other kids had it made.
S-R: When did you first realize you had a talent for art?
Spalding: I always had a facility for drawing. I probably resisted anything in the realm of art, because like most people back in the ’80s, it was all about me, me, me. My mindset was making a bunch of money, and the arts didn’t factor into it. Luckily, that changed.
S-R: What changed it?
Spalding: I went to Gonzaga to get a degree in business. Oddly, the required courses I didn’t care to take – a couple of religion and philosophy courses – meant the most to me. They got a lot of things turning in my head, and just as I was ready to graduate, I had an epiphany. I had a talk with my father, and said, “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t know what I want to do, but I know what I don’t want to do.”
S-R: What was his reaction?
Spalding: Very supportive, to his credit, because I know he was disappointed. But he turned me loose with his blessing. I sold everything I owned, went to Australia and spent six months journaling and thinking about stuff, then came back and started building a different life.
S-R: How did you get into art?
Spalding: I took an art class with Spokane Parks and Recreation, and the first day, the instructor, Carolyn Trueblood, came up to me – I was painting a still-life subject – and she asked me what I was doing. I said, “I’m painting these eggs here.” And she said, “No, what are you doing with your life?” And I said, “I’m a bum. I’m not doing anything.” And she said, “Well, you should be a painter.” And I said, “OK.” So she helped me along, sent me back to New York with the Arts Students League, and I spent six months there. When I came back, I met Bob Gilmore and tucked under his wing for about 10 years.
S-R: Do you remember your first art sale?
Spalding: I’m not real good at that sort of thing. I remember my first kiss, but I don’t remember the first painting I sold.
S-R: How did you get into real estate?
Spalding: About that time, I was looking for a funky little downtown studio. That didn’t turn out to be as easy as I thought. I ended up buying these two buildings on an owner contract. I just wanted one of them, but the owner said I had to take them both. So he forced my hand, which was a good thing. I tended bar a couple of years to pay the mortgage until I got the coffee shop opened up. That led to building apartments upstairs, and more development.
S-R: How many buildings do you own now?
Spalding: Seven. But I’m selling one (the Bickett Building) to a friend to start him on the path I took 18 years ago. I strongly believe the fastest road to a vibrant downtown core is getting more housing down here.
S-R: What are your plans for the Richmond Building?
Spalding: The same thing I’ve done with the Longbotham: mixed uses, with retail-commercial on the ground floor and residences above.
S-R: Sometimes a talent for art and a good business sense are mutually exclusive.
Spalding: One thing Bob impressed upon me is to try to keep the way you make your living separate from your art, because you don’t want one speaking to the other.
S-R: You’re a visual artist, a musician and a developer. Could you do any one of those alone and make a living?
Spalding: I think I could, but my standard of living would be higher or lower, depending on which one I chose. I just prefer mixing all three.
S-R: What’s a typical day?
Spalding: Hanging out here (at the bakery) for an hour, having coffee. Usually someone floats in and we’ll talk for a while. I may have a couple of meetings regarding a building situation. I might paint for a couple of hours, have a band rehearsal or tinker on a car.
S-R: What do you like most about mixing careers?
Spalding: I can do something on the spur of the moment if I need to.
S-R: What do you like least?
Spalding: There’s something to be said for the camaraderie that goes with being part of a formal group. When you’re painting, it’s a lot of solitary time, which is a good thing, to a point. But it can get pretty lonely. That’s why I find music so appealing – it addresses more of the office mentality. You’re creating with a group of people, and it’s social.
S-R: How about real estate?
Spalding: It’s frustrating sometimes to have to deal with regulations. If I’m working on a painting, I can do any damn thing I want to it. With a building, I have to conform to codes and regulations that are mostly good but sometimes silly, and I end up spending money on something that doesn’t make sense.
S-R: Do you have a business philosophy?
Spalding: Yes, at least regarding real estate. Some developer back in the day was asked the same question, and his reply was, “Buy low.” There was nothing else – no “sell high.” Buy and retain was the idea, which I like. I lost a little bit of money in the dot-com crash, and I could see right then that I didn’t want to ever invest again in anything abstract. I want to put my resources into something tangible. Regardless of what happens with Wall Street, people will need a roof and places to go do things. So that’s my philosophy.
S-R: What are you good at?
Spalding: I’m a generalist. I have a certain level of proficiency in a lot of things, but I’m not an expert at anything.
S-R: What are you not good at?
Spalding: I’m not much for dancing.
S-R: What are you most proud of?
Spalding: My friends.
S-R: What do you do for fun?
Spalding: What do I not do for fun? Everything I do is fun. Everything. The whole day is fun.
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