Hydro Racing

Follies big for Tri-City businesses

Water Follies weekend often means a full hotel for Mark Blotz, manager of the Clover Island Inn in Kennewick.

It also means reconnecting with people he hasn't seen in a year.

"You kind of get to know them," Blotz said. "It's kind of like they live in your house for an extended weekend."

Blotz's hotel is one of many hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses in the Tri-Cities that will feel an economic benefit from the 55,000-plus people who are expected to attend Water Follies this year.

Area hotels reported about 1,700 rooms rented per night on Friday and Saturday of last year's Follies, which equates to almost $2 million in spending by hotel guests, said Kim Shugart, vice president of operations for the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau.

That doesn't include campers, those staying in RV parks or others who stay with friends and family.

And despite high gas prices, event organizers are anticipating that more activities -- unlimited light hydroplanes and an expanded air show -- will pique people's curiosity.

"I think more people will stay local," said Water Follies executive director Kathy Powell. "They will look for things to do here. It's an economical activity."

Ticket sales are strong for hosted areas and general admission, said Lori Schumacher, administrative assistant.

But gas prices do seem to be affecting RV rental spaces, Powell said. Some out-of-towners are choosing to rent an RV in the Tri-Cities rather than driving their own or to stay in a hotel, she said.

By Thursday morning, there still were 13 of 83 spaces available in the park near the races, Schumacher said.

"We are not as full as we usually are," she said, which could be an indicator that more out-of-towners are choosing to stay home and save gas money.

"It has made a difference, I think," Schumacher said.

At Broadmoor RV in Pasco, the company's 12 rental units were spoken for a while ago, said Debbie Hughes, administrative assistant.

It costs $180 per night with a three-night minimum to rent an RV, she said.

Hughes isn't sure where the renters are coming from, but she said the RV business hasn't struggled because of gas prices because people try to save money on hotel and food costs by taking advantage of portable lodging when they travel.

Since Hughes lives on the river in Pasco, she gets to watch the races from her home.

"When that final heat starts, I want to be there from the time they line up until the time the last boat crosses the finish line," she said.

Those who don't live so close can use transportation offered by Ben Franklin Transit into the parks.

The shuttle system brought about 500 people into the park on Sunday last year, and more than 400 people on both Friday and Saturday, said marketing supervisor Christy Watts.

"I anticipate we'll do a lot more this year than we did last year," she said, because of higher gas prices and the cost of parking in the park.

"Plus you don't have to wait in line to get out of there," Watts added.

A little west of the action at Columbia Park, Kimo's is planning a sanctioned mix martial arts fight Saturday, said bartender Kyle Chism.

The event was a hit last year and holding it when the Tri-Cities is crowded with visitors is even better for business, he said.

Kimo's will close Sunday, though, because most people are drawn to the hydro races.

At the Courtyard by Marriott in Richland, general manager Kathy Moore said the hotel is practically booked.

Hotel bookings for the Water Follies weekend have changed over the years, she said, particularly because there are more rooms available now.

But Moore said she's a big supporter of the event.

"I think it's an important part of our community," she said.

And while Cedars Restaurant owner and manager Dave Mitcham appreciates the economic value of the event in the community, the weekend is not his biggest of the summer.

"I don't see very many of my regulars coming in on boat race weekend," because they stay away from the water or go out of town, he said.

People coming in from out of town also can be rowdier than his regular clientele, Mitcham said.

Many locals who shop at Fiesta Foods in Pasco during Follies weekend are picking up barbecue necessities, said assistant manager Marcos Ramos.

Chips, bread, beer, pop, ketchup and mustard are big sellers.

"We tend to increase our orders of those items based on this weekend," Ramos said.

His shoppers tend to be mostly local, although he sees out-of-towners and first-time visitors to the store, he said.

Though Water Follies officials aren't sure how many people are coming to the event from out of town, they're going to get a little help figuring out the demographics of this year's event.

Powell said business students from Washington State University Tri-Cities will conduct a demographics survey, "to find out where people are coming from, where they're staying."

And Shugart said many visitors get their first taste of the Tri-Cities during Water Follies and choose to come back for more visits.