Collin Ballard was driving along a Seattle viaduct when he underwent an unusual epiphany.
“I want to open a hostel,” he thought.
After all, Ballard was a natural host who had served as social coordinator for his college fraternity. He was a frequent overseas traveler with a lifelong design sensibility and advanced financial training.
At that time, Seattle already hosted three well-populated hostels that consisted of mixed rooms and minimal amenities. He picked a quirky, walkable neighborhood, Fremont, and drew up a business plan for a fourth one.
After a series of setbacks, Ballard, 27, eventually opened that hostel. Not in Seattle, but in downtown Austin.
With business partner Kent Roth, he runs the Firehouse Hostel, located above the Firehouse Lounge at 605 Brazos St., a half block north of the East Sixth Street nightlife district, facing the Driskill Hotel.
“People are exploring alternatives during a recession,” Ballard says. “And more international tourists are coming to Austin.”
It’s sort of surprising that this city, a prime target for the backpack set, for decades supported just one main hostel. The nonprofit Hostelling International Austin sits on a lovely, green site above Lady Bird Lake not far off Riverside Drive. It is, however, for all those budget travelers accustomed to walking or taking easy mass transit, inevitably out of the way.
A third such outlet, East Austin Hostel, recently opened on Morelos Street.
“Hosteling is already much more common in Europe and Australia and throughout the world,” Ballad says. “Firehouse is close to the craziness, but removed enough to be comfortable.”
Born in Seattle to two nurses, Ballard, a slender lane swimmer, was a creative only child.
“Only children, I feel, get a bad rap,” he says. “I was spoiled with love and attention, but not material goods. I got 200 percent of their attention, but with no siblings, I didn’t get along with my parents all the time.”
Even as a boy, he drew buildings, eventually taking computer-assisted design in high school.
“I drew houses, sketched floor plans, facades and elevations,” he recalls. “When I was 6, my grandmother showed me how to draw a real floor plan. It clicked that it was like a bird’s eye view.”
Early on, he traveled to Germany, Austria and Costa Rica and, through exchange programs, France and the U.K.
“I always wanted to get off the beaten track and get immersed in the culture,” he says. “I had friends drawn from a wide range of people.”
For college, Ballard headed to Washington State University in the rural eastern part of the state. He studied architecture but struggled with some classes, especially math.
“Maybe it wasn’t the right thing for me,” he realized. “All of the sudden, I had a problem: What am I going to be?”
His fraternity provided a safe refuge from career worries.
“For the first time, I had siblings,” he says. “I moved in right away. I learned more being in a fraternity about life than in any of my classes in college. For the first time I was free to make choices. When you have to live with 50 other guys, there’s a political aspect to it. You learn a lot about hierarchies and how things work socially.”
Ballard had a hard time accepting his gay identity, however, and didn’t come out until he was 25. (Now, in Austin, he talks freely about his steady boyfriend.)
Meanwhile, he switched his major to finance and concentrated on commercial real estate.
“If I couldn’t design buildings,” he says. “I could conceptualize and develop them.”
Unfortunately, nobody was developing anything during the recession that hit just before his graduation. So he landed a job as a server at a high-volume pasta spot and a beach manager on Lake Washington.
Whatever extra money he pieced together went into travel. Ballard stayed in his first hostel in Spain and later discovered that upscale, boutique versions allowed him to travel safely, comfortably on a budget. He explored his own country and expanded his travels to the Caribbean and South America.
In 2011, he visited this city for the first time to take in the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
“It opened my eyes,” he says. “It takes a while to grasp what Austin is all about.”
Meanwhile, the hostel idea sat on a back burner. He worked in sales before discovering that somebody else had opened a hostel — right next to his dream building in Seattle’s Fremont.
“I was really disappointed in myself for putting my dreams on hold,” he says. “So I researched more and scoped out the Austin market.”
Ballard revamped his business plan and moved here in August 2012. His working business title was “Austin City Hostel,” until he discovered online that Roth, operations manager for KIPP schools, and his wife had already claimed that name. That couple was still looking for backing.
Ballard also noticed: There were not a lot of old hotels or other viable buildings to convert into hostels.
Through a broker, Ballard found the historic firehouse on Brazos. It was outfitted with a lounge downstairs and empty offices above. The layout was decent, he thought, but needed work. He teamed up with Roth, rewrote the business plan, but deliberately didn’t use the world “hostel.”
“In the commercial world, ‘hostel’ wasn’t a cool word,” he says. “In America, they think ‘homeless shelter.’ They think of horror movies or bedbugs.”
In fact, Firehouse offers 10 immaculate guest rooms. Two are fairly airy suites with private bathrooms; three are “European” rooms with shared baths; and five are dorms, including “deluxe dorms.” Rates range from $29 to $149.
Ballard gives a lot of credit to handy Roth for making the first few months a success.
“Kent really is the backbone of the Firehouse,” he says. “My strengths have to do with conceptual stuff, design, networking. But without Kent, there wouldn’t be a Firehouse.
Ballard, who lives in South Austin, was a bit surprised by the first wave of guests.
“A lot of people from Texas,” he says. “Actually, also a lot of business travelers and conventioneers, too. We were expecting majority international travelers, but it’s closer to 50/50, with Australians making up the biggest slice of that market.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history.