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Worried shop owners hope state's PR plan saves peak season


State officials are working to spread the word: visitors can still reach businesses in the Northwest corner of the state in spite of the collapsed Interstate 5 bridge in Mount Vernon.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee directed the state Department of Commerce to release $150,000 for marketing and promotion efforts to help affected businesses. The state will work with local partners in Skagit, Whatcom, Island, and San Juan counties to develop a regional media plan to inform the public that area businesses and attractions are open and reachable by alternate routes and ferries.

The news offered some relief to business owners who have been agitated since hearing state officials and media outlets repeatedly advise drivers to avoid traveling near the affected portion of the interstate if at all possible.

"'Avoid the area’ is not the message we need to say,” said Lance Evans, executive director of the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce, adding state officials should instead be spreading the word about alternate routes.

“It’s just a slightly different way to get here,” said Evans.  “(After the weekend,) I heard back from innkeepers that (people) said, ‘That drive in was so gorgeous. We never knew that existed.’ In a funny way, it exposed them to a region of Washington state they wouldn’t have been exposed to.”

Lisa Nakamura, owner and chef of Allium Restaurant on Orcas Island, said the announcements dampened the mood over Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of the island’s busy season.

Lisa Nakamura is seen working in the kitchen at Allium Restaurant.

“By the time May rolls around, we’re ready for the new season. The new season needs to start,” said Nakamura. “I think people are a little worried. We’re all a little freaked out.”

Nakamura said island business owners don’t believe they’ll see an immediate impact since most visitors book in advance for their trips; they’re worried about a decline in future bookings, especially in July and August—the island’s two busiest months of the year. 

“If we don’t have a good summer, I don’t know how many nuts we’re going to have to stow away for the winter. That is a very troublesome thought,” said Nakamura.

And shop owners hope the bridge collapse doesn’t reverse what has been a steady recovery since the recession, said Evans.

“Since ‘08 and ’09, it’s (number of bookings has) been down since years gone by, and every year, there were hopeful signs that bookings are creeping up,” he said. “Since the economic downturn of ’08, we’ve had to redouble our efforts to make sure people know that this island is available to come have a local vacation.”

"We have new businesses opening up. We just need to make sure people know they can still get here," added Nakamura. 

Evans hopes the state-funded marketing campaign will make sure people do get that message. 

“Getting the word out is key so that … we don’t suddenly find summer is on hold in people’s minds. This is when people are making plans for summer trips,” said Evans. “Here is a (chance to have a) very well-broadcast, loud message, and I have to believe the county and the islands will see a positive uptick from that.”

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