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Spokane gets set to welcome athletes from around world

Mon., July 13, 2009

Veterans Wheelchair Games expected to draw hundreds

Stevie Gilbert grabbed the yardstick, turned it horizontally and walked through Wonders of the World bead shop, the store she manages in the Flour Mill shopping center north of downtown Spokane.

Gilbert measured the aisles of her shop on Thursday to make sure they were wide enough for customers in wheelchairs. The Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau passed out the yardsticks with informational fliers to all the businesses in the downtown core last week.

It was just one of the steps the city has taken to welcome 620 athletes, arriving with their families and coaches, from most states, Puerto Rico and Great Britain for the 29th National Veterans Wheelchair Games, starting today at the Spokane Convention Center. The event is the world’s largest annual wheelchair sporting event.

The Spokane VA Medical Center has been preparing for the event for two years and has recruited 2,700 volunteers to help with 17 different events ranging over five days at locations stretching from Whitworth University to a Spokane Valley shooting range to the Convention Center and Spokane Falls Community College.

STA buses have been specially fitted for paratransit and arranged for shuttle service between hotels and event venues. Washington Army National Guard is stationing greeters and escorts at Spokane International Airport. Fairchild Air Force Base has rallied 500 volunteers.

“Put in the paper that it’s free to the public,” said Bud Bemis, a 60-year-old Vietnam War veteran who lost the use of his legs to multiple sclerosis. This will be the Loon Lake man’s fourth time competing at the games. “These are all vets. Come out and say thanks and cheer ’em on. They did it for us; let’s do it for them.”

Spokane is on track to shatter athlete attendance records with more than 620 registered, said Matthew Allen, a spokesman for the VA Medical Center. Attendance has hovered around 500 for the past two decades, but Allen said many of the athletes fell in love with the Northwest when the games were in Seattle in 1996.

The event is presented by the Paralyzed Veterans of America and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Each athlete is likely to be accompanied by one or two others, including family members, coaches and therapists, Allen said. The CVB is estimating the event, today through Saturday, will draw more than 1,500 out-of-town visitors who will use more than 5,800 hotel room nights. “They’re going to be at Lilac Lanes, they’re at the shooting range. They are all over town,” said Pam Scott, communications director for the visitors bureau. “You look at 600 athletes coming and their families. We have to be prepared to meet them and their needs as our customers.”

The yardstick idea surfaced when someone mentioned that a wheelchair is about 3 feet wide, Scott said. The idea was hatched to help businesses visualize the amount of space customers will need to feel comfortable.

At Anthony’s seafood restaurant on North Lincoln Street, manager Frankie Dietz measured her aisles and determined some tables in the south dining room might need to be moved. She also planned to make sure hostesses would ask if customers making reservations were with the Games. And she planned to open a seldom-used deck overlooking Spokane Falls because it’s more wheelchair-accessible.

“If you want people to feel comfortable in the city then go back home and talk about how welcome they felt, those are the kinds of things you’re going to learn and do,” Scott said. “There’s a lot we need to pay attention to as businesses.”

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