Spokane Thinks Big

A small town with big city action By Marty Wentzel Spokane acts larger than it really is. While Seattle, with over 91 square miles, captures headlines on the western side of Washington, the

By: By Marty Wentzel

More Big-Time Fun

What’s distinctive about Spokane?  

As you send your clients in search of the answer, tell them to start the day at Frank’s Diner, a restored railroad car that sits on the tracks near the city’s downtown. Earning annual accolades for its breakfasts, it’s a place where waiters present their customers with oversized platters of home-cooked food — complete with white gravy on the hash browns — and charge low prices. While there, be sure to look for the store mannequin-turned-conductor named Frank. (What else?)

With a full stomach, it’s time for a walk. Advise your clients to hit the Spokane River Centennial Trail that links the eastern Washington city to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. When completed, the trail will be 67 miles long, up to 12 feet wide and paved for use by runners, walkers and bikers. The trail is closed to all motorized traffic and begins at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers.

While resting their legs, clients can suspend themselves over the Spokane River during a gondola ride. The Spokane Falls Skyride drops down 200 feet as it travels above the river, underneath a bridge and back up again. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows provide up-close views of one of the largest urban waterfalls in the United States.

Rides of many shapes, sizes and colors await in 100-acre Riverfront Park, in the heart of the city. First stop is the giant-sized Radio Flyer Wagon, which doubles as a slide; its wheels are nearly six feet tall. There’s also an all-original Looff Carousel, a 1909 antique with 54 hand-carved horses; roller coasters and other amusement rides; and a little tour train that takes clients from one spot to the next.

Fans of the movie "Napoleon Dynamite" won’t want to miss Cat Tales Zoological Park, home of an actual liger (a cross between a lion and tiger). With its lions and leopards, pumas and lynx, not to mention guided tours, a petting zoo and education programs, this is a favorite haunt for lovers of all things feline.

When it’s time to recharge the batteries, refer your clients to Scratch, a little restaurant that’s been doing big business since it opened in November 2007. Named for the raw ingredients used in each meal, it’s also known for its unusual libations. Carrot cake martini, anyone?

A day in Spokane isn’t complete without some live theater, so time your clients’ visit with a show at the newly restored Fox Theater. The art deco masterpiece reopened in fall 2007 after a $31 million renovation, but in its heyday it showcased such stars as Katherine Hepburn, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. These days it presents everything from classical music and plays to top recording artists.

For distinctive digs in Spokane, look no further than the Davenport Hotel, a 1914 gem that sparkles after a $38 million top-to-bottom renovation. Full of stories from many eras, it also provides all the modern amenities a traveler expects these days, like high-speed wireless Internet and flat-screen televisions. Quirky touches include a fireplace that is never allowed to go out; and the Hall of Doges, which was removed in its entirety from an older part of the building to its current location — making it the only flying ballroom in the world.

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Scroll down to read about what makes Spokane unique.

Spokane acts larger than it really is. While Seattle, with over 91 square miles, captures headlines on the western side of Washington, the 58-square-mile city of Spokane awaits clients in the east — 18 miles from the Idaho border — with untold opportunities for arts, entertainment, culture, sports and shopping. Thanks to ongoing initiatives by the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau (SRCVB), word is spreading fast about this little city that’s big on charm.

Spokane's skyline // (c) Spokane Regional CVB/Alan Bisson
Spokane's skyline 

Consider its Internet efforts. On Oct. 1, the SRCVB will unveil a new Web site that’s more progressive and user-friendly than its predecessor. The stakes are high, because the current site already has earned national kudos from industry expert Bill Geist in his e-newsletter Zeitgeist and from CoolHomePages.com. Among its new offerings, the site will allow regional businesses to update their own information, keeping it as timely as possible. The SRCVB is targeting its most popular niche markets with the seasonal Web sites of GolfinSpokane.com, SummerinSpokane.com and WinterinSpokane.com, all of which list cost-saving packages around the region.

The largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis, Spokane attracts visitors from Canada, northern Idaho, western Montana and northwestern Oregon. Recently, the SRCVB completed a comprehensive study that profiles its visitors, with an eye toward better targeting new markets.

"The results revealed some surprises in terms of niche markets," said SRCVB communications manager Pam Scott. "Visitors to Spokane are older than we thought, more affluent than we thought and stay longer than we thought. They enjoy snow sports, hiking, biking and water activities."

In the meantime, SRCVB continues to market to Canada, California and the regional drive market, all of which have helped Spokane maintain visitor levels from last year’s record-breaking year.

Not to be outdone by more cosmopolitan Western U.S. destinations, Spokane is the smallest city to host the Broadway production of "The Lion King," which it welcomed in 2005. It’s the smallest city to host the U.S. Figure Skating Championships (2007), and it holds the record for ticket sales for the event, beating out Los Angeles by more than 20,000. In January 2010, it will welcome back the championships — the final qualifier for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. — making it the first city in more than 50 years to host them twice in the four-year Olympic cycle.

"This is a chance to see Olympic-level figure skaters ahead of the Olympics," said Scott.

In 2010, it will also host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Clients can time their Spokane visit with one of its popular annual events, like Spokane Hoopfest, the world’s largest three-on-three basketball tournament. Nearly 25,000 players come from 42 states and three countries to play basketball in the streets of Spokane during the last weekend in June. Some 200,000 spectators cruise the courts, including former NBA stars like John Stockton, Craig Ehlo and Dan Dickau.

Spokane also hosts one of the nation’s largest timed footraces on the first Sunday in May. Called the Bloomsday Run, the 12K event draws some 50,000 athletes who strap on their ankle timers and face the challenging course, culminating in Doomsday Hill. In 2009, the action will take place on May 3.

Lovers of the arts will appreciate Spokane’s 2009 Best of Broadway series, which will feature top-notch theater including "The Color Purple," "Annie," "Ain’t Misbehavin’" with Ruben Studdard and Monty Python’s "Spamalot." All of the shows take place in the city’s INB Performing Arts Center.

Where does everyone stay when they come to Spokane? Accommodations run the gamut, and several new hotels are in the works in the region, including the $275 million, 350-room Northern Quest Casino. Best Western is planning a new 115-room hotel for downtown Spokane, adding to the two existing Best Westerns in the area. Wingate by Wyndham will soon open an 83-room hotel at the Spokane Airport, and a Hampton Inn and Suites is opening in Spokane Valley within the next few months. Additionally, local sources are reporting that two new hotels are planned for just across the Idaho state line.

Should clients need more reasons to visit Spokane, tell them they can catch a huge fish in one of 76 lakes within a one-hour drive of the city. They can go whitewater rafting five minutes from downtown, pick fresh fruit at nearly 30 family farms at the base of Mt. Spokane, sip varietals at award-winning area wineries, golf at any of 33 courses within an hour’s drive and ski at five resorts within two hours.

Pretty good for a small town.

Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau