Partnership promotes outdoor tourism in county

Alice Gifford knows just how special eastern Snohomish County is.

Although she lived in Seattle, every month she’d be rafting, fishing or hiking in the streams and hills along Highway 2.

“What makes this area unique is that it’s overlooked. It has some hidden treasures,” said Gifford, a member of Adventure Travel Trade Association that promotes outdoor businesses. She’s since moved to eastern Washington.

Being overlooked is what city and county officials want to change, especially in tourism, an industry that brings billions of dollars into the state each year.

East Snohomish County’s mayors, county staff and other public and private organizations are working together to create a partnership to promote outdoor tourism in the area, which is rich in attractions.

There’s skiing and mountain bike riding at Stevens Pass, rock climbing at the Index Wall, and rafting and fishing along the Skykomish and Snohomish rivers. The idea is to showcase the area’s natural resources to attract visitors.

By luring tourists, the cities and county also hope that manufacturing and retail businesses that specialize in outdoor products will follow.

“We want business to see the Sky Valley as a possibility,” Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick said. “We want it to be the only place to be if you are an outdoorsman.” Sultan has spearheaded the movement to create “Port-to-Pass,” an area from the Port of Everett to Stevens Pass that focuses on the outdoor industry. Cities such as Monroe, Snohomish, Index and the county have joined, hoping to land grants to promote the idea.

The county is planning a separate campaign to highlight the area’s attractions through social media, podcasts and cellphone apps. How much will be spent on the campaign is still being determined.

Promoting the area as a whole is an idea whose time has come, said Randy Driscoll, owner of Premier Polaris Monroe that sells snowmobiles, ATVs and motorcycles. He’s part of the group involved in the plan.

“In the long term, it will create wealth, jobs and a lot of stuff,” he said.

Tourism is the fourth biggest industry in Washington state.

Aerospace, software and agriculture are the top three.

Last year, visitors to the state spent $16.4 billion, and $880 million on food, fuel, lodging and other tourism-related expenses in the county, according to the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau.

Just how much of that is spent venturing outdoors isn’t known. What is known is that it is an important part of the economy for eastern Snohomish County.

For decades, Reiter Foothills, thousands of acres of public land between Gold Bar and Index, was used by people enjoying their off-road vehicles and motorized dirt bikes. Three years ago, the state shut down the area over concerns about environmental damage. The state also worried about the safety of those using the land.

A new trail system is being built in the area. New trails for off-road enthusiasts are expected to be ready in 2015.

Driscoll felt impact of the closure right away.

His Monroe business was selling about one ATV, snowmobile or other sport vehicle a day. Now, he is lucky if he can sell one every other day.

In response, Sultan started the “Port-to-Pass” plan in 2009 to promote the outdoors. The name is a bit of a misnomer.

Most of the outdoor activities being promoted are in eastern Snohomish County — not anywhere near the port. Still, the cities and county decided to tie their plan to the Port of Everett to better attract grant funding.

The idea is that the area not only would attract people to visit, but new businesses could export goods through the port.

Businesses like Werner Paddles, which manufactures paddles for kayaks and rafts. It’s the third largest employer in Sultan, with 47 workers.

One of the first steps in the project will be to identify and catalog the attractions the group wants to highlight.

“There’s so many incredible assets in east county,” said Wendy Becker, economic and cultural development officer for Snohomish County. “We need to do the whole inventory.”

Everyone has different ideas about what should be promoted.

The Index Wall is the crown jewel for climbing in the area, said Jonah Harrison, a Seattle-based lawyer and climber.

“Washington state is a climbing paradise and Index stands out,” Harrison said.

The 500-foot granite cliff was threatened just a few years ago when a private owner wanted to sell it for a quarry. Climbers from around the country rallied and raised enough money to buy the land for $115,000. The property has since been donated to Washington state parks.

Harrison said there can be up to 30 climbers on the wall on any given day.

The scenery and its proximity to Seattle make it one of the best in the country, said Dave Haavik, president of the Washington Climbers Coalition.

The rivers in the area provide opportunities for kayaking, rafting and fishing. The Skykomish is unique, because the river has rapids of different categories, so people of different skill levels can enjoy it.

“The Skykomish is one of the best rivers in the Snohomish County area,” said Justin Corson, a raft manager for the Outdoor Adventures Center, which is based in Index.

There are parts that are calm enough for family outings and nature watching. There are also rapids that provide a good challenge for advanced rafters.

“You get the adventure you were looking for,” Corson said.

And the rivers offer something else — beautiful waterfalls for sightseeing, including Eagle Falls, Bear Creek Falls, Deception Falls and the 265-foot Wallace Falls.

And Reiter Foothills is slowly coming back.

The state Department of Natural Resources opened a 1.4 mile loop for dirt motor bikes earlier this month. It’s the first portion of 26 miles of trails being built by the state agency, half will be for motorized use and the other half for hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders.

“This presents an opportunity,” said Byron Stuck, president for Washington Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance. “(Reiter) is unique because it is in a fabulous location.”

Another key to the area is Stevens Pass, which is in King County. The resort attracts thousands of skiers to the slopes every winter. This year it also opened up three-and-a-half-miles of bike trails for use in the summer and early fall.

The private business hasn’t joined the Port-to-Pass group, but is in favor of the idea, said Joel Martinez, the company’s vice-president of operations.

“What I have heard, it sounds like a great idea,” he said.

Will promoting all of these destinations as a package attract customers?

That’s the key question.

Count William Marriner as a skeptic.

He’s the president and owner of the World Outdoors, a Colorado-based company that organizes tours in 14 states, including two tours a year to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. He says there are various regions in the country that offer similar activties to what Snohomish County offers. People must want to come before he can organize a tour to the county.

“We pick areas that are easy to sell. For more success, we usually need a draw like a national park,” Marriner said.

Snohomish County is off the radar for others.

Avery Stonich, spokeswoman for the Outdoor Industry Association, a Colorado-based organization that represents 1,300 businesses, doesn’t know Snohomish County.

But she agrees that a diversity of activities is important.

“A variety of outdoor activities is good to attract businesses,” she said.

The government and business folks are on the right track, said Daniel Brown, executive director of America Outdoors Association, a Tennessee-based organization that represents companies that provide guided tours.

If an area doesn’t have a wide reputation, those people must work harder to promote the attractions.

“All areas are unique in their own way, but this is one my favorite areas,” Brown said.

Brown has traveled throughout the country. He used to live in Snoqualmie in the late 1970s when he visited the Glacier Peak trails, the Index Wall and the Skykomish River. His last visit was four years ago to hike.

“The entire state of Washington had tremendous recreational opportunities, and the Snohomish County area was one of the most remarkable,” Brown said.

Alejandro Dominguez: 425-339-3422; adominguez

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