Tri-City tourism looks stormy

KENNEWICK, Wash. -- As the Tri-Cities head into 300 days of sunshine, it's time to think about getting out and doing something. But the hard part for local businesses, is how to get that message to spread out of state. KEPR took a look at the fate of tourism here in Washington, and it's anything but clear skies.

While our neighbors to the south have a Kardashian, Olympian and a rock star to promote their state, Washington has 'Ted,' a cabby. "The van driver at Red Lion," said a tourist from Salt Lake City, after we asked how he found a local winery.

That's the harsh reality Washington now faces, because last year was the first year without a state tourism board. For a Tri-City winery, like Bookwalter, whose business relies heavily on the tourist industry, the state's decision could be devastating.

"People think it just happens because Washington is such an amazing placebut it doesn't happen automatically," said John Bookwalter. He said Washington has two options and sitting still isn't one of them. He's hoping a tourism alliance is the answer, dubbed the Washington Tourism Alliance, preferring it to the state taking over again.

"We want to operate independently and we feel we can be effective marketing outside the area," he said. To do that will require a mechanism to generate funds, which begs the question 'how much?' "1.9 million to help make a website and cover basic, basic needs," said Kris Watkins, President and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitors and Convention Bureau. Basic needs include a telephone, and someone to answer questions about the state.

"Oregon spends $10 million dollars a year, Montana spends well over that," countered Bookwalter. "British Columbia spends $50 million a year and California is in that range too, these people are fighting for those tourist dollars and we are not even at the table at the moment."

The only other state willing to take this risk was Colorado back in 1992 and the outcome was disastrous. Tourism dropped by 40 percent in seven years, enough for the state to bring the tourism board back. But 20 years later and they aren't where they were in '91.

"Our competing states were probably celebrating," said Watkins when the announcement was made last year.

The Tri-Cities last year saw a decline of six percent across the board. Conventions and sporting events fell flat. It's not to Colorado yet, said Watkins, but it does add up, putting five thousand jobs in jeopardy and $400 million in spending on the line.

"The Tri-Cities alone generate $31 million in state and local taxes," said Watkins, $31 million to roads and bridges that's currently blocked.