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June 28, 2018
The cranes that line cityscapes in many Northwest cities symbolize prosperity through technology. Tacoma’s current collection of cranes demonstrates something else entirely: an investment in tourism through the city’s ability to host bigger and better meetings, conventions, events and performances.
Tacoma has seen six consecutive years of growth as a destination for tourism, now with $530 million in visitor spending each year, which accounts for 43 percent of the $1.23 billion industry countywide. That success is inextricably linked to the venues — both private and city-owned — that have always drawn local and regional visitors, but are increasingly drawing visitors from across the country and around the world.
Recognizing that improved venues attract more visitors and an increase in visitors requires better events and infrastructure, much of the current development in Tacoma is centered around visitor-facing venues.
Resetting the stage
Its visibility from I-5 has made the Tacoma Dome synonymous with the city itself in the minds of many in the Puget Sound, and in its 35-year history, it has hosted more than 25 million people.
More than a quarter of those attendees stay the night in local hotels, funneling money into local businesses and paying local taxes. In 2017 alone, the dome hosted Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar, Blake Shelton, Eric Church, Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
Garth Brooks’ five sold-out performances last November flooded downtown hotels, restaurants, breweries, nightspots and shops with more than 100,000 attendees, and had $12.5 million in economic impact.
On days when these artists played, Tacoma hotels averaged above 97 percent occupancy, and hotels throughout the county shared the rewards.
That makes the $31 million improvement project at the dome this summer a solid investment in local tourism.
Improving the fan and artist experience is at the core of the investment, which includes all new seating, additional restrooms, security enhancements, improved backstage dressing rooms and loading docks.
The Tacoma Dome is the largest indoor arena in the state and expects to increase the number of events hosted annually, just as its primary competitor Key Arena closes for a two-year renovation.
A recent renovation of historic Cheney Stadium was another clear example of “if you build it, they will come.”
In 2011, Cheney Stadium — home to the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers and now the Sounders FC2 squad — was remodeled to expand hospitality and vantage points for fans. Also, a family pavilion was added that includes a playground with a full-scale Wiffle ball field.
The Rainiers’ owners have invested in technology to upgrade the in-game viewing experience, extending the opportunity for high-quality viewing for fans outside the park.
This upgrade helped Cheney Stadium secure the 2017 Triple-A All-Star Game for Tacoma, which filled hotels with team owners, athletes, staff, fans and media from around the country. Additionally, the Rainiers drew a seasonal attendance of 370,000, which puts it in the top five stadiums in Triple-A baseball.
Arts venue investment is another visitor-facing space where Tacoma is leading the way. Tacoma’s Historic Theater District contributes $24 million annually to downtown’s growing economy with more than 237,000 visitors each year.
Broadway Center for the Performing Arts stewards Tacoma’s historic Pantages and Rialto theaters, both 100 years old.
The Pantages Theater will close through November for renovation, restoring and refreshing Tacoma’s crown jewel for future generations. The result will be an aesthetic and acoustic experience closer to what the theater’s original patrons encountered inside the grand hall on its opening night in 1918.
The visitors brought to Tacoma through these events, performances and meetings need places to stay, and hotel rooms are increasingly in short supply in Tacoma. Occupancy and average daily room rates are both at all-time highs.
Fortunately, investors and hotel brands have been far-sighted in that area as well. The $34 million McMenamins Elks Lodge property is expected to open in 2019, and will add a 44-room hotel with three restaurants, a brewery and live music space to Tacoma’s hotel inventory.
Marriott has made a major statement as well, breaking ground on an $85 million, 300-plus-room hotel attached to the Greater Tacoma Convention Center, which will help the city compete for bigger and higher-profile meetings.
Additionally, Silver Cloud is looking to develop its second property along the Tacoma waterfront, adding an additional 194 rooms at a cost of $54 million.
These three properties alone will account for a more-than 50 percent increase in downtown Tacoma hotel-room inventory.
While Tacoma is still developing as a destination for tourism, all the signs say that it is on the cusp of even more explosive growth. The story told by Tacoma’s cranes is one of tourism-led growth for the city and Pierce County.
Bennish Brown is president and CEO of Travel Tacoma + Pierce County.