Big business at the Water Follies

Running ice to race teams, vendors and VIP tents in Kennewick's Columbia Park is helping the Three Rivers Lacrosse Club afford to grow by leaps and bounds.

Drawing about 70,000 people to the banks of the Columbia River for three days is a boon for nonprofits, sports groups and local businesses.

For the lacrosse club, vice president Annie Ackerman-Brown said Water Follies is one of the group's biggest fundraisers.

Last year, after the cost of ice, the club collected about $5,300 that went toward club-owned uniforms, tournament fees and equipment needed for practice. And with 30 percent year-over-year growth, that cash is needed.

About 158 kids from age 8 up to high school seniors play on the club's teams. This weekend, some players and parents will be delivering ice, she said.

"We have a great partnership with Water Follies," Ackerman-Brown said.

Water Follies is a boon to other sports teams and area nonprofits who help with parking or operate concession booths as a fundraiser.

And Kris Watkins, Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau president and CEO, said she expects to see Water Follies visitors spend at least $2.3 million as they did last year. That only includes those visitors who book a stay at a hotel.

The actual impact is more, with people who stay at RV parks, campgrounds and with friends and families contributing to the local economy by buying gas, groceries and eating out, she said.

At least 6,000 guest room nights likely will be booked in the Tri-Cities during the event, Watkins said.

Rooms at the Clover Island Inn in Kennewick sold out nine months ago, said Mark Blotz, general manager.

Many customers visit the hotel year after year for the races, he said. Already 80 percent of the rooms have been booked for the 2013 races.

"Everybody comes here to have fun, and it's nice to be the host," he said.

And the Red Lion's Richland, Pasco and Kennewick hotels will be almost sold out for the weekend, said Ian Napier, regional director of hotel operations.

"During the summer we've been pretty good, but we're busy every year when Follies are in town," he said.

Like the hotels, the Tri-Cities RV Park in Kennewick will fill all of its 140 lots this weekend, said Electa Samson, office manager.

"July is already a busy month for us, but during boat races we're extra busy," she said.

As of Tuesday, MoonRiver RV Resort in Richland already was 95 percent full, said Patrick Flape, manager of the 112-lot park.

Most of people at the Richland park aren't visiting for the races, Flape said. But the races give the park an extra boost of customers to fill all its lots over the weekend, he said.

In addition to places to stay, gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants also see increased traffic from visitors and locals.

Fiesta Foods in Pasco already is getting ready for picnickers.

"We usually get a pretty good rush earlier in the mornings when people are packing up and getting ready to go to the park," said store director Juan Corren.

Park-goers tend to stock up on chips, water, soda, fried chicken, salads and tamales, he said. And liquor sales should do well too.

At Cooper, a Red Mountain winery, owner Neil Cooper said they do see an influx of visitors during Water Follies. But it isn't any more than the winery draws on other summer weekends, such as when there is a baseball tournament being held, he said.

The average boat race spectator is more likely to enjoy beer during Water Follies, Cooper said.

White Bluffs Brewing in Richland gets a little more business at its taproom during Water Follies, but not much since it isn't close to the event, said Chris Collier, marketing manager.

But they are offering 50 cents off of the first pint of their craft beer to customers who show a ticket stub or wrist band from Water Follies, he said.

Monterosso's Italian Restaurant and the Atomic Ale Brewpub & Eatery typically see a 20 percent increase in sales during the boat races compared to a normal summer weekend, said Aaron Burks, owner of the Richland restaurants.

Locals tend to bring in visiting family and friends, and they also have visitors seeking them out, he said.

Monterosso's Mountain Red Select private label red wine and pork tenderloin tends to do well, he said. So does Atomic Ale's hand-crafted Burks Blonde beer and the meat lovers' Four Kings Pizza.

But the Water Follies benefit is more than just the three days of the boat races, Burks said.

"Visitors who come for the Water Follies may discover some of the great qualities of the Tri-Cities and return again in the future," Burks said.

This year, ROOT Sports will show the Columbia Cup on cable and satellite TV multiple times throughout the Northwest, Watkins said. That helps show the Tri-Cities as a great waterfront destination, helping attract visitors, she said.

But for some of the outlying businesses, Water Follies actually can mean a slower than usual weekend.

Today, Frost Me Sweet Bakery & Bistro in Richland expects to be hopping. With Art in the Park going on in Howard Amon Park just across the street, owner Megan Savely said business is fantastic, with cold iced tea and flavored lemonades in demand.

The art show continues from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. today. Admission is free.

But Savely said she's found business on the Sunday of boat race weekend slows to a crawl.

So it's become Frost Me Sweet's Employee Appreciation Day, with all employees getting a day off.

"I think that it hurts the outlying businesses as it draws people away from them and to the races, but overall I am sure it is a good economic boost for the Tri-Cities," Savely said.

Art in the Park tends to draw a different crowd than the boat races, said show director Jennifer Hickman. The art show draws about 40,000 people.

They do see some attendees who also went to the air show or Water Follies, she said.