Ryan Oelrich, who was appointed to a three-month term on the Spokane City Council last Monday, has deep roots in the community and is well known in different circles for distinct reasons.
For some, he is best known for his serious work trying to improve the city he calls home, often with a focus on troubled youth. He’s served as chair of the Spokane Homeless Coalition and in various roles on the Spokane Regional Continuum of Care board, which helps coordinate federal resources to address homelessness. He currently works as the executive director of Priority Spokane, an organization that collaborates with other entities to tackle issues like high school graduation rates and student homelessness.
He was voted Best Philanthropist in 2017 by readers of the Inlander, though he spent much of the interview highlighting the work of others.
For others, Oelrich is best known for his often-whimsical art. He’s built large sculptures out of balloons since he was a teenager, and his work has thrilled spectators at Bloomsdays and local parades. In 2004, he spent weeks living in a house made of balloons to promote Habitat for Humanity. Though Guinness declined to certify it, Oelrich has a picture hanging in his house that still proudly declares he is the world record holder for the longest time spent in a balloon house.
Even if locals don’t recognize Oelrich by name, they might recognize him as the owner and builder of Spokane End, a Hobbit house inspired by a trip to the Lord of the Rings movie set in New Zealand and built into the side of Oelrich’s home.
Oelrich embraces his silly side, both as a comfort during difficult times and as a way to connect.
“Somebody who has built a Hobbit house is hard to take too seriously,” Oelrich says. “When it comes to connecting, sometimes we let little things get in the way, so that’s definitely a tool I can use to show I’m still very much a human being.”
For some who have lived in the city for decades, Oelrich is best known for being caught in the middle of a scandal that rocked the city nearly 20 years ago.
Oelrich was appointed by then-Mayor Jim West to the city’s Human Rights Commission in 2004, his first experience in local government.
Oelrich, then 24, didn’t know at the time that West was the same man he’d met earlier in an online chatroom under an alias. West had been aware of Oelrich’s identity, however, and pursued Oelrich romantically.
After the mayor told Oelrich he had been appointed to the commission because of that romantic interest, and as the mayor’s behavior became increasingly inappropriate, Oelrich resigned just seven months after he started.
Later, as other accusations of inappropriate behavior from the mayor came to light, Oelrich went public, wanting the mayor to be held accountable.
Nearly 20 years later, Oelrich says he reflects with sympathy on West, who was a closeted gay man serving as the city’s highest elected politician.
“It in no way atones for some of the tough positions he put myself and so many others in or the mistakes he made,” Oelrich adds. “But I have sympathy for how hard it was at that time. He told me it would be impossible for him to be out.”
Former City Councilman Dean Lynch, appointed to the council in 2001, was the first openly gay council member to serve in Spokane. He lost an election for a full term later that year in a close race and then said he felt he was the target of an innuendo campaign.
The first open member of the LGBT community wouldn’t be elected by Spokane voters until 2022, when Councilman Zack Zappone narrowly won his seat.
“I’m out, just being myself,” Oelrich said. “And I don’t take that for granted. And I’m reminded on a weekly, if not daily basis, that that is a privilege that I have that others like me in so many other parts of the world did not.”
Oelrich’s family moved around a lot during his early life, as his father was in the Air Force. He tried his hand at stage magic, not all of which ended successfully – he recalls his sister, who was his assistant at the time, dropping a scorpion into a box with Oelrich before he was ready to make it magically disappear. Later, in Las Vegas, a man hired Oelrich to make a life-sized palm tree out of balloons, which spurred a lifelong passion for the unorthodox art form.
He first came to Spokane to study at Whitworth University, initially hoping to pursue ministry, before deciding that, as a gay man, that was no longer his path.
Much of Oelrich’s work with nonprofits over the years has been focused on helping young people. Part of this is practical: addressing an issue or obstacle early in a person’s life can have a big effect downstream, he said. But it’s also a strategy that resonates personally.
“I was a troubled youth,” Oelrich said. “So when I can use my lived experience and what I learned, when I can turn around and help others going through similar or different circumstances than I did, it’s something I’m really passionate about.”
Oelrich, who was selected from nine applicants for the open council seat vacated in July by Lori Kinnear when she was appointed to temporarily serve as City Council president, was sworn in Wednesday. He will appear at his first council meeting on Sept. 11.
Kinnear was named City Council president on July 17, following the departure of then-Council President Breean Beggs, who was appointed to the Spokane County Superior Court bench. Kinnear already was term limited, and Paul Dillon and Katey Treloar are running to fill her seat for the next four years; once the November election is certified, the winner will replace Oelrich.