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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Everything we do is new’: Spokane Valley’s new city manager has been there since the beginning

New Spokane Valley City Manager John Hohman is photographed Jan. 14 in front of City Hall.  (KATHY PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When John Hohman was a little kid, his dad built him a big wooden dump truck.

“I still have it,” Hohman said. “Some of my earliest memories are being small, riding in the back of this giant wooden dump bed, pushing us – me and my sister – up and down the sidewalk.”

A dump truck, a vehicle synonymous with construction and city government, was a fitting toy for Hohman that also foreshadowed his future. He went on to spend decades as an engineer for county and city governments, often overseeing large construction projects.

Now, Hohman is overseeing Spokane Valley’s government as the city’s most powerful unelected official. City Council appointed him city manager earlier this month after his predecessor, Mark Calhoun, retired in December.

The city manager reports directly to the seven-member City Council and manages the city’s daily operations. Hohman borrowed one of Calhoun’s analogies to describe the city manager’s role.

“He’s a taxi driver for seven passengers,” Hohman explained. “They tell him where they want to go, and then he determines how to get there. He chooses the route.”

Hohman grew up in Southern California with four brothers and two sisters. He studied engineering in college – like his father – and graduated from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

After college, Hohman became an engineer in Los Angeles County’s public works department. He spent much of his time working on large construction projects with multimillion-dollar budgets.

In 1999, after a decade working with Los Angeles County, Hohman left sunny California for the Pacific Northwest. He worked at his family’s metal fabrication company in Airway Heights for a while before taking a job at Spokane County evaluating stormwater systems.

Hohman then switched to reviewing development projects, making sure that new construction was up to code.

When Spokane Valley became a standalone city in March 2003, Hohman came aboard as senior development engineer – essentially the same role he’d had at the county. He liked the idea of “starting something from nothing” and helping create a city from scratch. He was one of Spokane Valley’s first employees, starting in July.

Hohman’s been a fixture in Spokane Valley government ever since, but his role has changed a handful of times. His title first shifted when he went from senior development engineer to community development director.

In that role, Hohman spent much of his time streamlining the city’s permitting process in order to make it easier for developers to start and complete projects. Builders were often frustrated by how long it took for the city to approve permits for new construction.

“At the time, our permitting processes were the worst in the region,” Hohman said. “People had no certainty that they’d get stuff done on time. We didn’t have enough staff to get things done – a lot of disgruntled customers.”

The Valley’s permitting process was “broken,” Hohman said. As part of his interview for the new job, he proposed a 12-step plan for fixing it. Hohman said it took three years to turn the city’s permitting process around, but now many developers say it’s far faster to get a permit in the Valley than in Spokane or Spokane County.

Hohman said the key change wasn’t just the 12-step plan, it was a shift in philosophy.

“We took the viewpoint of, ‘What could we do to facilitate the projects as they came in?’ ” Hohman said.

Hohman’s title changed again when he became the city’s community and economic development director. He brought an engineer’s mindset to the role, and had two main concepts for tackling economic development in the Valley

One was speed. Hohman said he wanted businesses to know they could get established in Spokane Valley fast.

“That was the one thing that I would pitch at the end of our initial meetings with these companies when we’re trying to land them,” Hohman said. “‘You tell me what your schedule is and I guarantee you we’ll meet it.’ And we never, ever didn’t meet those schedules.”

In addition to speed, Hohman focused on infrastructure. It was an “If you build it, they will come” approach.

The city decided to put new roads and sewer infrastructure in the Northeast Industrial Area before businesses had even arrived. The Northeast Industrial Area is a vaguely rectangular piece of property from approximately Euclid Avenue to Trent Avenue and between Flora Road and the city’s eastern limit.

On top of installing infrastructure – Hohman estimated the city spent roughly $6 million on that work – Spokane Valley conducted an environmental analysis for the area that sped up the permitting process for new construction. The Valley was doing work beforehand that businesses would have otherwise had to do on their own.

It was a gamble, Hohman said, but it worked.

The Northeast Industrial Area is now home to an Amazon facility and the former Katerra building, which was sold in August to a Canadian pulp and forest products company for $50 million.

Hohman said he’s stayed in City Hall so long because working there has been “the most interesting job I’ve ever had.”

He’s been able to do more than just engineering work. And because the city is new and still evolving, staff have the freedom to come up with unique solutions to problems other municipalities might have solved decades ago.

Even after 19 years, Hohman said Spokane Valley is still finding its identity as a city, especially on the regional stage. He said that’s part of what makes working for the city exciting.

“We don’t have a hundred-year culture,” Hohman said. “Everything we do is new.”