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Event’s impact difficult to judge

Tue., Jan. 30, 2007

Monday was particularly quiet in Spokane. Gone were tens of thousands of athletes, officials and fans of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, who headed home after Sunday’s close of the eight-day event.

The question business owners were pondering: Did the national competition fuel the economic bonanza they’d hoped for?

Some said they enjoyed a financial windfall; others were disappointed.

Skating folks and fans flooded the Davenport Hotel and Tower, downtown Doubletree Hotel and Red Lion Hotel at the Park for more than a week.

The city garnered rave reviews on national television, while smashing the ticket sales record by selling a total of 154,893 seats – 29,548 more than the Los Angeles event five years ago.

“It was an unbelievable week. It was eight days of glory,” said Toby Steward, co-owner of Star USA, which has spent five years helping organize and promote the championships.

Reviews weren’t as rosy for restaurants and shops farther away from the city’s two ice rinks. Many of them said business was dismal the first part of the week and didn’t pick up until Thursday.

“We anticipated being busy the full spectrum of the event. What happened to us is we got our push Thursday through Sunday,” said Marty Hogberg, owner of Luigi’s Italian Restaurant.

Like many restaurateurs, he’d extended his hours, brought in extra staff and planned special menus – most of which weren’t needed. He’d anticipated a 100 percent spike in business, but got only 25 percent or so, he said.

Bryce Kerr, owner of the Italian Kitchen downtown, blamed “over-hype,” and said his business was down.

“For the last two years, we’ve been told this is going to be the next coming, the biggest thing since Expo ‘74 – and I’m sure it was great for the hotels, but speaking for downtown restaurants, it’s been a huge disappointment. And I’ve talked to seven or eight other business owners and they’ve said the same thing,” Kerr said.

Not only did skating fans fail to materialize, he said, locals stayed away for fear of crowds and scarce parking.

Even for the sponsoring Davenport Hotel, the event got off to a slightly rocky start when 80 reserved rooms were released at the last minute by U.S. Figure Skating officials, according to Matt Jensen, director of sales and marketing.

Luckily, the Davenport kept a waiting list and “back-filled” the rooms with other guests, he said.

But some business owners, such as Greg Lipsker, co-owner of Barrister Winery, said it’s critical the community keep the skating event and the buzz it created in proper perspective.

“In the long term, tourism events (like this) are going to pay off very handsomely for all businesses,” said Lipsker, who admitted his winery didn’t draw skating fans like he’d expected but benefited from demand for the vintages he provides to restaurants.

And Spokane demonstrated it’s able to handle bigger conventions, conferences and other events with its expanded Convention Center, revitalized downtown and congeniality.

Gov. Chris Gregoire told a reporter Monday that Spokane did such an amazing job as host it’s made the whole state proud.

Harry Sladich, president and chief executive officer of the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the region and its residents have good reason to crow: “This was a triple axel for Spokane.”

“We heard over and over and over again, from (ABC sportscaster) Dick Button all the way down to a California woman who’s attended skating events for the last six years: This was the finest event they’ve ever attended and they felt the athletes were skating their best because they felt embraced.

“I told my staff: ‘Spokane is a community that’s up for a challenge and we deliver on it.’ We’re sitting here with big smiles on our faces.”

Of course it’s too early to count the profits – some of which will remain under wraps. For instance, Star USA, the event’s primary promoter, is forbidden by its contract with U.S. Figure Skating to reveal its take from the championships, said Barb Beddor, company co-owner.

And city officials will have to wait for weeks on financial reports for a more accurate picture of the economic impact.

Regardless, said Jensen at the Davenport, Spokane put on a star performance.

“This town really pulled together for this,” he said. “We learned a lot and we’re going to see huge benefits from this for many years to come.”


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