By Don Nelson

The Methow Valley and Okanogan County will get some help from the state to promote the region’s beleaguered tourism industry, in the wake of devastating wildfires that discouraged untold potential visitors over the past several weeks.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday (Aug. 15) that he has approved a request from the state Department of Commerce to provide $150,000 in economic recovery aid that will support marketing efforts intended to draw visitors back to the region.

Inslee said the funds will supplement tourism promotion and marketing efforts already being implemented by chambers of commerce, municipalities, the county and the Washington Tourism Alliance to counteract the impacts of the Carlton Complex Fire, the largest in the state’s history.

“From the Methow Valley and Okanogan National Forest to the Grand Coulee Dam, this region boasts beautiful landscape, diverse wilderness recreation activities, and historic towns,” Inslee said in a press release. “This aid package will help get Okanogan’s robust economy back on its feet, as its residents begin the challenging task of rebuilding and recovering.”

The funds will be administered by the Economic Alliance, a nonprofit organization that is the county’s designated economic development agency.

Roni Holder-Diefenbach, executive director of the Economic Alliance, said this week that she was working with the Department of Commerce to develop a contract that will designate how the state funds will be spent. Commerce requested the funding in response to the economic losses and infrastructure damage caused by the Carlton Complex Fire.

Holder-Diefenbach said she will be consulting with representatives of all affected communities as well as the county commissioners to develop a plan for best use of the state funds.

On Tuesday (Aug. 19), the Economic Alliance issued a “request for qualifications” soliciting applicants to carry out the campaign — with a very quick turn-around time. The request specifies that the agency or organization that successfully contracts with the Economic Alliance will develop advertising, public relations and social media strategies and must come up with a response by Sunday (Aug. 24). A contract will be awarded by Tuesday (Aug. 26) and the full campaign roll-out will begin no later than Sept. 9, according to the request for qualifications.

To obtain a copy of the request for qualifications, email or call (509) 826-5107.

Penny Thomas, a spokesperson for the Department of Commerce, said the tourism promotion grant is modeled after one that was approved for Snohomish County after the Oso mudslide to devise a marketing plan and leverage local promotional efforts.

“Visiting the Methow Valley and Okanogan County with my family last weekend, I saw firsthand that the area is very much open for business. We join with local leaders in encouraging folks to come and take advantage of the beautiful late summer weather in this spectacular corner of our state — it’s a great way for anyone to help with their recovery effort,” Commerce Director Brian Bonlender said in a press release.


Consistent message

Local civic leaders echoed those sentiments with a shared message: The Methow is open for business with its best attributes available to visitors.

Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, a persistent advocate for the state promotional grant, said that “I felt strongly that the funds should be used where the impact was most dramatic.”

“We’ve lost a lot that we can’t get back,” Ing-Moody said. “But we don’t want to lose the entire summer. We hope to stimulate more business in the coming months.”

“It’s critically important to do everything we can to let people know we’re still whole,” Ing-Moody added.

“The need is clear to try to replace some of the tourism that was lost,” said Amy Stork, executive director of TwispWorks and president of the Twisp Chamber of Commerce. “We need to clear up the impression that the Methow Valley is not suitable for tourism.”

Stork said it’s important to emphasize to potential visitors that “everything they most love about the Methow Valley is still here.”

Julie Muyllaert, president of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, said that the grant indicates the state understands that Methow Valley and Okanogan County communities are “all on the same page” about the need to promote tourism.

The state funds will help build on existing promotional efforts hastily put together by local organizations such as the chambers of commerce to get the word out that the region is ready for visitors. “The state dollars further all those efforts,” she said. “We can leverage the funds for many months to come.”

The valley may be seeing the impact of pent-up demand now that the fires are largely under control and the smoke has cleared out, Muyllaert said. “Last weekend felt like a summer weekend for the first time since the fires started,” she said.


What about next year?

One possibility that has been raised, Holder-Diefenbach said, is to hold back some of the promotional funds until early next year, and use them to tout the 2015 tourism season. It’s already evident that hotel-motel taxes collected to support tourism promotion will be down this year because of the fall-off in business, she said.

“We didn’t have heads in beds for a month,” she said. “It was a ton of lost business.”

Part of the justification for the grant, Holder-Diefenbach said, is job creation and retention. “We need to keep people employed,” she said, “and the only way to do that is to bring people back into the area.”

Holder-Diefenbach noted that the state funds don’t come with any administrative costs provided, so the Economic Alliance will be distributing the full amount rather than taking an administrative cut. “It’s part of what we do,” she said.

Materials prepared for the Department of Commerce as part of the grant request indicated that the promotion and marketing campaign could target areas such as Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver, B.C., and elsewhere through television, radio, cable, on-line, and social media.  Components of the campaign will focus on letting target audiences know that the fire is no longer a threat, planned seasonal events will take place, and roads and campgrounds are open.

In a memo sent to local businesses recently, the Twisp and Winthrop chambers of commerce reviewed some of the promotional efforts that have been mounted in collaboration with the Okanogan County Tourism Council. The memo noted that the organizations have spent about $75,000 to help draw visitors. The Okanogan County commissioners agreed to use reserve marketing funds as well.

The efforts have included radio, television, print and social media advertising in selected target markets.