GeoInspirations: Grant Ian Thrall, Bridging Geography, Business and Economics

By Joseph J. Kerski

Today's GeoInspiration is Dr. Grant Ian Thrall, a man for whom I have gained much respect over the years, speaking with and listening to him at the business geography sessions at the American Association of Geographers conference and at the Applied Geography Conference. Dr. Thrall holds degrees in economics, business and geography — the last from The Ohio State University — and has been tirelessly merging these three fields for decades. He also bridges the academic, nonprofit and business sectors, serving as president of the American Real Estate Society, which produces six trade journals and has 1,650 members, while owning his own consulting firm, Business Geography Advisors. I view him as a true bridge-builder, helping scores of students, faculty and decision-makers in many different fields understand the value of decision-making with a geographic perspective. 

Dr. Thrall entered the field of geography a bit differently than our other GeoInspirations. Rather than being inspired by a class or mentor, it was experience itself which taught him the importance of geographic study.

"It was geographic phenomena and geographic reasoning that drew my interest to what I would learn, much later in my education, that some considered my interests [as actually focused on]  geography," he explained.

"My parents were Route 66 people from central Ohio. My dad had been a college professor and a superintendent of a school district. They drove Route 66 to Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, turned left and bought a house. My dad accepted a teaching post at a high school. His job opportunities were limited because he had become physically handicapped as had Bob Dole in WWII; like Bob Dole, my dad had lost the use of his left elbow. This is important to this story only in that as many fathers would play sports with their sons, mine did not. Instead, my dad would drive the family in his car along each new interstate and to each new development in the high-growth Los Angeles of the 1950s. We would discuss what was being built and to be built, where and why. We were doing urban business geography, not knowing it was geography.

"I was fortunate to spend my junior year of high school in London, England. Twenty years after WWII, London was still rebuilding from the damage of the blitz. London was a very different urban place than Los Angeles. I could take the Tube most anywhere. London was a walkable city. In Los Angeles, I was geographically limited to where a driver’s license holder was willing to take me. I continued to think about urban space, land use, land use patterns, vintage of place.

"Upon returning to Los Angeles, my mother began working at General Electric. She became head of marketing for GE West Coast, one of the first three women executives at GE. Today we hear 'Fathers, take your daughters to work for a day.' In my case, it was my mother who took me to work. 'Grant, your assignment for the week is to calculate cannibalization of the surrounding GE white good franchises if GE agrees to add a new franchise at this address, and [determine] whether the new franchise will be viable.' This was in the era before big box appliance stores," Dr. Thrall continued.

"These projects expanded my interest and knowledge of how business decisions affect land use patterns, and what would be a good business decision for development of a location – not all locations have the same opportunity. Like-kind locations might have the same opportunity.

"My parents’ choice of purchasing a residence near the California Institute of Technology would also be a significant force in my academic orientation. Later, while I was majoring in economics and business at California State University at Los Angeles, and while working my way through college, one of my many job experiences was working at Caltech. I had the good fortune to become immersed in Caltech’s quality academic culture; that became the standard by which I have evaluated education institutions since that experience. I have been excited to watch Neil deGrasse Tyson’s commentaries on the 1960s faculty at Caltech; I knew these people. Many worthwhile experiences. I walked with Dr. Clair Cameron Patterson along Colorado Boulevard, and conversed with him about the harm of lead fumes to human life and the environment from gasoline additives. Clair Patterson sowed the seeds in me of environmental awareness and being a good earth steward.

"In a counseling session in the College of Business at CSULA, I told the academic advisor what I wanted to study. I was told there were no such classes at the university, no such academic discipline. Just fit in, do what is required and graduate. That advice left me unfulfilled.

"Lunchtime friends at CSULA were philosophy majors. They were excited that Professor John Hospers had accepted a position at CSULA and recommended that I enroll in his courses. I did. John would subsequently become chair of the Philosophy Department at University of Southern California – benefits of proximity and agglomeration – and he would be the first nominee for President of the United States by the Libertarian Party. I benefited and still allude to John’s teachings and writings; but I did not become an unquestioning disciple.

"John Hospers and Ayn Rand were intellectual partners at the time. John the academic, Ayn the populist, the communicator to the average person, the non-academic. A key axiom of their thesis is no relevant interdependencies, no relevant externalities; if there were such phenomena, the market would adjust, making the phenomena irrelevant with no harm done. Indeed, government action to control the externality would be worse than the harm caused by the externality. I found this impossible to reconcile with what I had learned from Clair Patterson at Caltech. Much later, my Ph.D. dissertation dealt with the topic of public goods and externalities; not being satisfied with my work on this topic, I revised the formulation and published in a Regional Science journal, “Public Goods, Externalities, and the Consumption Theory of Land Rent.” I received letters from very distinguished economists upon its publication that I had solved one of the most difficult economic topics of the time period. Motivation and relevant problem identification from experience.

"I graduated from CSULA and received an assistantship in economics at The Ohio State University. There, my graduate advisor was Dr. John Weicher, an urban economist. However, before I graduated, he left OSU to become assistant secretary of HUD. Knowing my interests, he recommended I enroll in some geography classes.

"At the same time John advised me to enroll in geography classes to fulfill my urban economics program, I was dating Susan Elshaw, also a graduate student at OSU, and whom I would later marry. Her apartment roommate was Allison, who was dating Dr. Reg Golledge, professor of geography at OSU. Geography and economics were at the time mixed up together in Hagerty Hall, the old business school building. Reg convinced me to finish my Ph.D. in geography with a minor in economics, rather than the vice versa of finishing in economics with a minor in geography. Easy sell, since my economics advisor had just left for HUD in Washington, D.C. So after my M.A. in economics, I enrolled in my first course in geography. I found the topics of urban economic geography relevant to my long-standing interest, and was attracted to the newly developing technology of GIS which would prove important to my empirical work. Professors Reg Golledge and Emilio Casetti were my co-advisors in geography," Dr. Thrall said.

"My becoming a geographer, my particular value platform as a geographer, has been more of a process than a decision of which box to check when declaring a college major. It has been more an evolution from experiences than a single class or book; the class and book helped me to structure my thoughts on the topic in a comprehensible manner. Later I created the Scientific Geography Series ten volume collection of monographs in part to assist myself in understanding relevant geography literature, and structuring the body of relevant knowledge. I have been multidisciplinary, which fits with the geography discipline’s belief that it is integrative of other disciplines; I have found universities to be more about silos of disciplines. Geography has its own spatial reasoning and theory, its own GIS and spatial statistics methods, and its own set of substantive topics that are accepted as core to the discipline. I am fortunate and humbled that my contributions in business geography (location intelligence) have served to create part of what is now accepted as core, and not available when I was a student.

"Individuals that I hold as most important in my intellectual development in geography are geographers Reginald Golledge and Emilio Casetti; urban economist John Weicher; philosopher and Libertarian Party nominee for POTUS John Hospers; and the Homer Hoyt Institute," Dr. Thrall said.

Of what projects is Dr. Thrall proudest to have been a part? 

"The creation of Business Geography as an accepted university core curriculum whose graduates are in high demand by business; the creation of the AAG Business Geography Specialty Group; being elected to president of American Real Estate Society; having my work quoted in The Economist; my varied entrepreneurial endeavors; my ten volume Scientific Geography Series; Land Use and Urban Form: The Consumption Theory of Land Rent; Business Geography and New Real Estate Market Analysis which was subsequently used to jump start the rewriting with several ARES members and CCIM practitioners, CCIM 102 Real Estate Market Analysis Curriculum and CCIM/ESRI STDB.com; my monthly columns in GeoSpatial Solutions GIS trade publication from circa 1990 to circa 2007; and I would like to mention having been chair of Gainesville Redevelopment Agency, effectively providing me a “test tube” for my land use theory and business geography / location intelligence methods; the City of Gainesville awarded me two consecutive days as 'Grant Thrall Days',” he said.

With this vast experience from which to draw, I was eager to hear what issues Dr. Thrall sees as those most important to the geography community today. "Be equally rigorous and relevant," he told me. "Maintain focus on skills needed for employment within and outside the university. In addition to being academic as in “normal science,” be entrepreneurial. Be both a teacher scholar and a practitioner scholar.

His advice to new geographers? "Same as Indiana Jones gave to students in the library as he slid through on the back of his son’s Harley Davidson motorcycle: Get out of the library and classroom and experience geography as done by practitioners," he replied.

May we all heed Dr. Thrall's advice, be rigorous in our methods, think outside the box, blaze our own trails when there are none to follow, promote geographic thinking in many disciplines, and tirelessly serve the community.

If you are interested in reading more about Dr. Thrall and his work, he has an extensive library of resources on his website, YouTube channel and across various other media:

Dr Thrall’s YouTube channel focuses on location, spatial economics, consumer behavior, geography, education, geospatial data and technology, and related topics.

A selection of his books can be found on Amazon.

Dr. Thrall’s homepage includes links to reprints and working papers, his resume, news interviews, and video presentations.

The Gainesville Sun published this article, Thrall Masters the Business of Geography, about the man and his workin 2013.

For more information about the Business Geography Specialty Group (Location Intelligence) of the Association of American Geographers, go to http://www.businessgeography.info.


Published Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

Written by Joseph J. Kerski

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