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Our view: Spokane holding its own with conventions, tourism

Given the Ridpath Hotel’s long history in Spokane’s core, it is startling to think of it as shuttered or its distinctive rooftop sign as disappearing or bearing a different name.

But don’t mistake that grim, if hopefully temporary, development as evidence that Spokane’s hospitality and tourism trade is moribund. Anything but.

In contrast with this week’s announcement about the Ridpath, whose owners abruptly closed it last week for at least four months while they explore affiliation with a chain, recent data about occupancy and room rates in Spokane County are encouraging – at least in the context of the times.

Here, as nationally, the tourism business has been on a long climb back from the bleak times that followed Sept. 11, 2001. It’s been only a couple of years since the industry got back to pre-9/11 levels, just as gasoline prices blasted off. So when local hotel and motel figures show that room occupancy rates are pretty level right now, that’s a good sign. What’s even better for the Spokane region, according to Convention and Visitors Bureau President Harry Sladich, is that average room rates are at their highest ever. Rates in downtown Spokane have hit $104.54, a 4.5 percent increase over a year ago.

While Sladich emphasizes that many attractions and partnerships contribute to the success of tourism in the Spokane area, the promising numbers his agency reports are a vindication of the controversial steps taken by the city just a few years ago in expanding the Spokane Convention Center. At the time, some national observers were questioning whether such ventures were a wise economic-development strategy for state and local governments.

But it’s paid off here. According to Sladich, a dozen groups will gather in Spokane in 2009 – because of the expansion.

At present, the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau has a goal of 80,000 convention-delegate rooms a year, and Sladich says the projections show they’re on pace to reach it.

And that’s just convention business. Record-setting crowds that come to Spokane for Broadway shows and national ice-skating championships add even more cash register jingles to the local economy. Whatever else residents think about Spokane County’s purchase of a West Plains race track, Sladich sees motor sports as a desirable addition to the area’s menu of attractions.

Tourism brings new dollars into the region rather than recirculating the money that’s already here. Better yet, it puts the community on display and plants ideas in the minds of people who might be looking for a hospitable place to build a career or a business.

Vigorously promoting the community toward that end calls for teamwork among the community’s hotels and motels and organizations like the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Most of the major hospitality businesses have been active partners in such efforts, according to Sladich, though the Ridpath has been an exception.

Those 200 now-shuttered rooms will be needed if Spokane is to achieve its tourism potential. Let’s hope the Ridpath reopens soon under leadership that shares the larger vision.

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