Tri-Cities' family atmosphere, sporting lifestyle sets it apart, expert says

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 23, 2014 

The Tri-Cities is missing a performing arts center and a true downtown, but has a family atmosphere and a sporting lifestyle that sets the area apart from the rest of the Northwest.

That's a perception of the Tri-Cities that Roger Brooks has built from 1,300 survey responses, more than 100 interviews with community leaders and groups and his own experience touring the area as a visitor.

Brooks explained the process of creating a perception, or brand, during a community meeting Thursday.

That perception has not been determined yet. But chances are the Tri-Cities brand will draw on the local lifestyle, Brooks told the Herald.

Brooks was hired by the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau, the Tri-City Development Council and the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce for $87,000 to create a regional brand for the Tri-Cities. He acts as a facilitator and a devil's advocate in the perception creation process.

The Tri-Cities has quality housing, neighborhoods and library and school systems at half of the cost of living in Seattle, which helps attract young families, he said.

And the Tri-Cities has more sports and recreation facilities per capita than anywhere else in Washington, Oregon or Idaho, Brooks said.

The perception can't hang on quality of life, Brooks said. The Tri-Cities has been trying to sell itself on recreation, wine and 300 days of sunshine. But that's something all of Eastern Washington has laid claim to, and doesn't set the area apart.

One of the biggest needs in the Tri-Cities is a performing arts center, Brooks said. Otherwise, the perception is that the area lacks cultural depth, despite numerous local arts groups. Arts groups are forced to perform at high school theaters and the Toyota Center, which just isn't the atmosphere for such productions.

The Tri-Cities also lacks a downtown with village cafes, a central plaza and street musicians, Brooks said. The community needs a pedestrian-friendly area with non-chain restaurants.

Downtown Kennewick isn't adequate for a city of its size, he said. He described it as more worthy of a town of 2,000. Downtown Pasco has a great Hispanic theme, but lacks a central gathering place.

Overcoming the perception of Hanford is another challenge, Brooks said. People don't think about the B Reactor. They think about Hanford as a dangerous place with leaking nuclear tanks.

Brands are what people think about something and are built by word of mouth, Brooks said. Sometimes a community needs to tell a different story to change the perception.

Branding is not about logos, slogans or ads, Brooks said. It's about saying what the community is and why someone should want to live here, operate a business or visit.

For example, one cool thing about the Tri-Cities is how people can hike Badger Mountain and then head to wineries. The recreational aspect makes the wine experience different than what other areas might offer, Brooks said.

Kris Watkins, Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau president and CEO, said she was shocked at how many people in the recent survey said they go hiking, walking or biking and then to wineries.

In February, a small group of local leaders will start looking at which of the ideas make the most sense for the Tri-Cities, differentiate the area, and are feasible, Brooks said.

Then in March, they will need to determine what the Tri-Cities has to offer that will back up whatever they propose, he said.

Sometimes communities need a "bridge," or temporary brand until they can deliver on the final choice, Brooks said.

The Tri-Cities could start by promoting culturally rich events offered by the Tri-Cities' 22 performing arts groups and hold festivals that draw on arts and wine before a performing arts center is opened, he said.

Walla Walla is an excellent example, Brooks said. The perception of the community went from prisons to onions to wine in about 20 years. But that took a lot of work and involved recruiting wineries to open shops in the downtown area, he said.

Once the brand is chosen sometime around April, it will need to be integrated by the cities, counties, chambers, visitor and convention bureau, TRIDEC, the port districts and other economic development groups, Brooks said.

"You win when you have everybody on the same page pulling in the same direction, and there is a desire to do that (in the Tri-Cities)," Brooks said.

Watkins said the convention and visitors bureau is holding back on signs on the Sacagawea Heritage Trail, a redesign of the website and a new logo until a brand is chosen.

w Kristi Pihl: 582-1512;

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