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Restaurants and hoteliers from Pullman to Spokane to feel sting of no fall football

Teresa Becker manager of Cougar Land Motel poses for a photo in front of rooms that are normally completely booked out on WSU football weekends on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, outside Pullman, Wash. Becker expects the hotel won’t survive without college football this fall.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Teresa Becker manager of Cougar Land Motel poses for a photo in front of rooms that are normally completely booked out on WSU football weekends on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, outside Pullman, Wash. Becker expects the hotel won’t survive without college football this fall. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

PULLMAN – Teresa Becker stood Thursday in front of the rows of empty rooms, painted gray with crimson doors, that just days before had been full with students and parents trying to navigate Washington State University’s start of a school year that mostly will include no students in classrooms.

It’s normally the time when the Cougar Land Motel would be preparing rooms for upcoming Cougar football games, many of which sell out a year in advance. Those six or seven fall weekends transform all 42 rooms of the tucked-away roadhouse into a bustling venue full of energy.

Not this year.

“We are just a mom-and-pop place,” said Becker, who manages the motel. “The owners said this will probably kill us with no football. I don’t know how small businesses are going to do it. The money-makers were football games and special events.”

The Pac-12 Conference made the decision last week to cancel the fall football games that normally transform a city of about 34,500 residents into four-day party. Similar decisions also mean no fans will be flooding Cheney to watch the Eastern Washington Eagles scamper onto the red turf or invading Moscow to watch the Idaho Vandals in the Kibbie Dome.

If current conditions persist with growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, it could also threaten the fall schedule of Gonzaga basketball, which lost its shot at a national title when the NCAA Tournament was canceled in March at the beginning of the pandemic.

The more immediate loss, however, are football Saturdays.

Many of those thousands of Eagle, Cougar and Vandal fans either fly or drive into Spokane. Many of them stay in downtown hotels, eat in Spokane-area restaurants and shop in Spokane-area stores. That important revenue stream is now lost even as those same hotels and restaurants struggle with reduced business caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Anthony Anton, 50, lives in Tacoma and works in Olympia as the CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association. But his heart remains on the Palouse, where he graduated from WSU in 1991.

“I’m a die-hard Coug,” Anton said. “There are two things going on: The impact on me personally and the impact on hospitality. Coug football is my getaway. It’s my passion. Then you have the impact of 20,000 people coming to town for Cougar football. That and teams for other fall sports are real economic drivers.”

Several officials contacted for this story were not able to estimate the lost revenue for restaurants, hotels, pubs and stores. But those businesses were already suffering from Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order and the resulting reduced capacity, said Grant Forsyth, chief economist for Avista Utilities.

“Now they can’t even look forward to football season to alleviate some of that,” Forsyth said. The loss of football games is “going to prolong their suffering because of the fact that these games do bring a lot of people in. This is just a further signal. The recovery from this is going to be a long one.”

While others could not put a dollar figure on the loss of Idaho, Eastern Washington and WSU football games, Visit Spokane has been able to track what Gonzaga games have meant to Spokane by using a computer-generated tracker linked to advertisements, Visit Spokane spokeswoman Kate Hudson said.

“Anytime someone clicks on the GU site and clicks on our ad, we can track everything,” Hudson said.

The program showed that GU basketball games generated 487 flights into Spokane International Airport in 2019. Those fans paid for 2,705 hotel bookings that averaged 2.1 nights per stay. At $127 an average night in a hotel, that revenue alone generated about $750,000.

“That doesn’t count the cost of flights or restaurants,” Hudson said. “You are going to the bar before the game, to the restaurant for food and going out afterwards. I feel so sad for the people who own the businesses and the wait staff and bartenders who rely on the WSU season and the GU season to fund their lives.”

The travel for the games is part of an overall $1.3 billion annual tourism industry for Spokane County, she said.

“I don’t think people realize how travel and tourism affects them,” Hudson said. The tourism revenue “provides $1,000 in tax relief per household. So, losing all these visitors and travelers, who come for football and basketball games, puts a burden on everyone else.”

The first major disruption from the pandemic came with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament in March. The Spokane Arena was set to host the opening rounds of the men’s tournament.

“Everybody thought by July we would be out of this,” Hudson said. “Here we are six months later and the hits keep on coming. It makes me sick with worry for our businesses and the people who live in our community. It’s not just the economy, (these games) are part of the fabric of our community.”

Toby Broemmling, the executive director of the West Plains Chamber of Commerce, said businesses in Cheney survive the summer months so that they can get reap the wave of about 13,000 students at EWU in the fall and spring. Football games bring a needed boost into that economy.

“It’s definitely going to have a big hit on our downtown businesses,” Broemmling said. “We are kind of preparing for the worst. Cheney is resilient and they will bounce back. But, you can’t deny the impact EWU has on the town.”

Grandson day

Marie Dymkoski has been promoting the Palouse for 13 years as executive director of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce and has lived in the area for 32 years.

For the past five years, Dymkoski has been trucking her grandson to the Cougar home games.

“It’s been such a great memory. I’m really sad I don’t get to spend that time with him,” she said . “Still to this day, I think it’s sort of a romantic drive from Spokane down here. Especially that time of year.”

Pullman has traditionally been a one-company town, she said. That’s WSU.

“Many of our businesses are here to support the students and the faculty and the fans who come into town,” she said. “Most businesses in Pullman understand that feast-or-famine way of life. And, it’s been famine since the beginning of January.”

Becker, from the Cougar Land Motel, said the business could always count on selling out for Mom’s Weekend in early April, the fall football games, homecoming and graduation. Now none of that is certain.

“It will definitely hurt us,” she said.

Llana Kish, 21, is a senior psychology major at WSU. The Ferris High School graduate stayed in Pullman to work this summer. She’s the supervisor at Cougar Country Drive In, an iconic stopping point for a burger on game day.

Business from locals has been steady and a few students have already started to filter into the restaurant, which has half its booths marked off to comply with social distancing requirements. Kish said she believes Cougar Country can survive, but not thrive, without thousands of fans descending on Pullman.

Last football season “it was insane. We had people lined up inside and outside the door. We had to stop taking orders because we couldn’t keep up,” Kish said. “We are not going to have to staff the insane Saturdays or have the crazy rushes. But, we also won’t have to overstock because we were afraid of running out.”

Dymkoski, who typically gets four season tickets, agreed with Kish that businesses like Cougar Country found a way to make it work even when the Cougars were the doormats of the Pac-12.

“I went to some of those games where you could throw a rock in any direction and not hit anyone,” she said. “But people were still coming to town. The money was still coming in. Very little. But there was as till a band playing the fight song. And, die-hard Coug alums who still showed up.”

But Dymkoski was also there when ESPN’s College Gameday came to Pullman on Oct. 20, 2018, and watched the No. 25 Cougars upset No. 12 Oregon 34-20 behind the mustache power of quarterback Gardner Minshew.

As the team’s fortunes improved, the crowds swelled. Fans parked their RVs on campus on Thursday and flooded area bars and restaurants for a couple days before the game.

“It’s seven weekends, Thursday-through-Saturday. That’s 28 days of high economic impact that we will be losing,” Dymkoski said. “My guess is … that about 50 percent of the hotel and hospitality income comes from fall sports. To take all those weekends away when, generally, you are already down, is really tough.”

Anton, the Washington Hospitality Association CEO, said the loss goes deeper than that. He sits on the hospitality advisory board at WSU and visits campus every year to interact with students.

“I love that our hospitality program is based in a town where people make eye contact and say hello when you walk around,” he said. “I get teased because I rarely lose my anger in meetings. I get it out on Saturdays. We have a little escape. Go Cougs. It’s a huge part of our lives.”

Dymkoski agreed the games mean more than dollars for the Cougar community.

“To not have football is crazy to think about,” she said. “I know it’s the right decision. But, I’ve not been able to fathom that.”

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