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Shawn Vestal: Giant board games likely coming to downtown Spokane thanks to one man’s energy

It’s doubtful that a jumbo game of Chutes & Ladders was on many people’s list of things we need downtown.

Until recently, that is. Now it seems to be on a lot of them.

In the past couple of weeks, a proposal to bring oversized outdoor games downtown has sped from inspiration to likelihood. Spokane’s Ryan Oelrich, under the umbrella of the Terrain arts organization, has begun obtaining games, securing donations, and pitching a detailed plan to bring the giant board games to public spaces in downtown Spokane on weekends and for special events. The games would include chess, checkers, Connect 4, Chutes & Ladders and a Spokanized Tic-Tac-Toe that Oelrich is considering calling “Marmots and Turkeys.”

Though it’s not set in stone, possible sites include Wall Street and Kendall Yards, and Oelrich says that other “safe public spaces” would be identified in collaboration with city and business leaders. The games would be stored when not in use, with backups in place to help offset wear-and-tear or in case someone runs off with a giant plastic pawn. A key component of the plan includes hiring kids from the Crosswalk Youth Shelter to set up and supervise.

“This is something that happens in a lot of large cities to activate public spaces,” said Elisabeth Hooker, marketing and programming manager for the Downtown Spokane Partnership. “It’s something that we’ve thought about doing for a while here at Downtown Spokane and so we were excited when Ryan” proposed it.

Oelrich is a jack-of-many-trades in the local arts and nonprofit community. A past leader of other groups dedicated to serving youth, he’s now executive director of Priority Spokane, an organization focused on helping homeless and at-risk kids. He’s also well-known for his large, extravagant balloon creatures, which are a fixture at First Night and other local events.

He was in Seattle a couple weeks ago, and found himself with time to kill in Westlake Park, a public plaza downtown. There is a giant chess/checkers board there, as well as other games.

At first Oelrich watched, and he found it interesting to see men in suits and ties interacting with apparently homeless people. He then played Ping Pong with an 11-year-old.

“He beat me several times,” Oelrich said. “But it was fun. It was super-fun.”

The sets were stored in a little nearby shed. Parks officials in Seattle told him that they had fewer problems with theft or vandalism than you might expect, but that they did have backup pieces.

“I know some folks who are really creative and fun, so I wondered if this would fit in Spokane,” he said.

Between then and now, Oelrich has purchased a chess set, obtained the donation of a Connect 4 game, begun talking up the idea all over town, and developed a detailed plan, based on an $8,400 budget, for making it work. He also called around to parks departments in different cities, asking for their advice.

One such official in California gave him an important tip: “He said, ‘People will tell you you need Giant Jenga. Don’t do it!’”

Hooker said she’s had the idea of outdoor games on her “short list” of ways to help create more activity and connection in outdoor spaces downtown – amenities that let people stop, visit, play and enjoy the city.

“There’s a cool factor to it,” she said. “It’s kind of hip. It’s kind of in. It’s kind of silly and fun and encourages everybody to be kids again.”

In Oelrich’s mind, the games would serve an additional purpose. They offer a chance for people to connect with one another and enjoy the outdoor spaces of the city across cultural and socioeconomic lines.

“I just feel as a society, we are heading toward a cliff of disconnect,” he said.

He worries this is especially true between homeless people and the rest of us. That’s why he included a provision for hiring Crosswalk kids to set up and supervise – a way of bringing people who are often marginalized into the public square.

“It’s something simple,” he said, “but it’s a small tool to get people talking, laughing and having fun.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.