Expanding visitor centers can answer the darnedest questions

A young couple from China came into one of Snohomish County's visitor centers and asked, "How do we get to the White House?"

A family stopped at a center to find out when to tour Bill Gates' house.

And an Alabama couple's plan for a day had them going to Canada, then to the Olympic Peninsula and then to Olympia to meet friends for dinner.

A visitor-center volunteer told them, "You're going to need a helicopter if you want to do that."

"We also get a lot of questions about RV parking in downtown Seattle," said Jennifer Owen, the visitor-services manager for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau.

Answering such questions with humor and respect is part of the job of visitor-information centers. The smiling volunteers behind the counters, usually longtime area residents, are the frontline ambassadors for community attractions.

Tourists annually spend about $675 million in Snohomish County at restaurants and stores, and on transportation, hotels, entertainment and recreation.

"Washington state is relatively unique in that more than half of the visitors in Washington state are from somewhere else in Washington state," said Amy Spain, the bureau's executive director. "Washingtonians love Washington."

So do Canadians.

"With the strength of the Canadian dollar to the U.S. dollar ... we're seeing more and more Canadians come down to Washington," Spain said.

This month, the bureau is poised to expand its visitor centers, a regional approach to tourism that will knit parts of the county together. On Friday, the bureau will take over the Snohomish visitor center in a move endorsed by city officials. The changeover will be celebrated with an open house.

"We're seeing this as a huge opportunity to take that management aspect off our backs and be able to really work on events and things that happen within the community," said Joshua Scott, a board member of Historic Downtown Snohomish, which opened the center a year ago and initiated the transition to a county center.

The county's two other visitor centers are at Arlington's Hawthorn Inn & Suites, which is a temporary location, and at Lynnwood's Heritage Park. Each center has a local flavor, so the Snohomish branch will continue to promote the city's attractions.

The Tourism Bureau's new branch is near the Snohomish River at First Street and Avenue D. The building looks like the old Snohomish train depot, with yellow siding and symbolic railroad tracks and crossing signs. It drew 8,500 visitors last year, City Manager Larry Bauman estimated, a number that's expected to expand with the changeover.

Most of the 25 Snohomish volunteers will stay on, said Spain, who has worked for the Tourism Bureau the past 10 years and was promoted to executive director last year.

The bureau also is negotiating a lease agreement at Smokey Point to share a center with the newly merged Arlington-Smokey Point Chamber of Commerce.

The bureau maintains a Web site with event listings and profiles of communities and their attractions, and produces an annual visitors guide with descriptions of each community and its special events, plus a separate biannual calendar of events.

Last year, it put out a hiking guide with the Snohomish County Economic Development Council.

From military reunions to weddings to convention business, "any group of people that's coming to the Snohomish County area, we act as a liaison to help them do business here," Spain said.

A growing activity is sports, she said. In summer, Snohomish County communities often host softball, baseball and soccer tournaments.

Because the visitor centers are open all but three days a year — closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day — they rely on volunteers. About 125 volunteers work shifts at the centers. "Most have lived in the community a long time and are travelers themselves," Spain said.

The visitor centers are wholly funded by a portion of the county lodging tax. Last year's budget was $97,000.

"In 2005 alone, had we paid our volunteers, it would have cost the bureau over $161,000," Spain said.

With the volunteers handing out hundreds of brochures and maps, the centers aren't just for visitors — they also can give residents a refresher course on local attractions.

"Minutes off the I-5 corridor, you can be visiting a farm, river rafting, hiking a trail," said Spain. "An hour and a half north and you're in Canada. Half an hour south, you can be in metropolitan Seattle."

Diane Wright: 425-745-7815 or dwright@seattletimes.com

Snohomish County Tourism Bureau

Visitor centers: Heritage Park, 19921 Poplar Way, Lynnwood (off Interstate 5 exit 181); Hawthorn Inn & Suites, 16710 Smokey Point Blvd., Arlington (off I-5 exit 206); 1301 First St., Snohomish.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Information: 425-348-5802, 888-338-0976 (toll-free) or www.snohomish.org.

Special event: The Snohomish center will host a free public party at 3:30 p.m. Friday. Information: 360-862-9609.

Volunteer opportunities: Call Jennifer Owen at 425-348-5802, ext. 13.