Issaquah businesses target tourists for attractions, events

October 25, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Issaquah leaders often describe local qualities as treasures — a quaint downtown, mountain panoramas, historic buildings and more.

Local businesspeople describe such attractions as “tourism assets” all set for out-of-town guests to enjoy and, in the process, spend dollars in hotels and restaurants.

Issaquah Chamber of Commerce officials gathered representatives from local “tourism assets” Oct. 18 to discuss successes and opportunities to lure more tourists to the area.

Leaders from artEAST, Cougar Mountain Zoo, Village Theatre, and other Issaquah attractions and events, said attendance is strong, but sometimes people overlook local offerings.

“Tastin’ N Racin’ — unfortunately — is Issaquah’s best-kept secret,” event organizer Craig Cooke said. “Nationally, it’s not. There are events in 13 other states that have all called and patterned their event on what goes on on land and what goes on in water.”

Tastin’ N Racin’ attracts 20,000 people — and sometimes up to 50,000 — to Lake Sammamish State Park each June for hydroplane races and onshore offerings.

Other long-established attractions face a similar challenge in luring potential tourists.

“Yes, we do have a zoo in Issaquah,” Cougar Mountain Zoo General Curator Robyn Barfoot said.

Jamie Lilly, Village Theatre marketing director, emphasized the national attention the theater garnered for “Next to Normal” and “Million Dollar Quartet” — Broadway musicals crafted in Issaquah.

Issaquah’s tourism treasures

The most popular attractions and events in Issaquah offered attendance estimates during a recent tourism discussion led by the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce.

Boehm’s Candies

The candy factory and alpine-themed setting lure almost 150,000 visitors each year to see candy makers prepare hand-dipped confections.

Salmon Days Festival

Salmon Days attracts about 150,000 visitors each year, on average, although attendance can approach 200,000 people in excellent weather.

Village Theatre

The theater entertains more than 18,000 subscribers and more than 100,000 people at Issaquah theaters and the Everett Performing Arts Center.

Cougar Mountain Zoo

The zoo attracts 80,000 visitors each year to see rare Bengal tigers and other endangered or threatened species.

Tastin’ N Racin’

The hydroplane races on Lake Sammamish reel in 20,000 visitors each year — or up to 50,000 visitors in excellent weather.


The nonprofit organization greets 12,000 visitors each year at the downtown artEAST Art Center & Up Front Gallery.

Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery

FISH docents lead tours for 10,000 visitors each year, although the nonprofit organization is unable to tally the number of unscheduled visitors roaming the hatchery grounds.

Issaquah History Museums

Through programs and downtown historic sites, the museums educate and greet 8,000 visitors each year.

“There’s only a handful of theaters in the country that really focus on new musicals, and our program is 100 percent unique,” she said. “The authors who work with us say there is not another theater in the world that will do what do and see them through the entire process from beginning to end.”

Though Issaquah attracts more than 150,000 people each October for the Salmon Days Festival, tour groups do not often seek out the city as a destination.

Local businesses should consider such groups as a still-untapped resource, Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery Executive Director Jane Kuechle said.

“There’s a real opportunity for Issaquah, as a community, to attract some of these bus tours that are coming through the area and want to learn,” she added.

Some recent guests at the hatchery included a senior citizen tour group from California en route from Leavenworth to Seattle.

“They drove down in the morning, took a tour of the hatchery and then drove to Seattle, watched them fling the fish, and then went out to Blake Island and had a salmon dinner,” Kuechle said. “So they had a salmon day.”

Tourism fits into long-term strategy

Tourism is a perennial focus for business and city leaders.

The last in-depth report on economic development — a city-commissioned document delivered in 2005 — emphasized tourism as a major generator for the local economy. The report urged leaders to emphasize year-round attractions related to culture, history and outdoor recreation in the Issaquah area.

The latest effort from the chamber urges people to Discover Issaquah and touts the area as a gateway to the Cascade foothills. The team behind the endeavor includes chamber and city officials, plus local hoteliers.

“We have some pretty bold plans to try to get the word out through some different mediums,” chamber CEO Matthew Bott said. “We need to continue to do broad-based promotion, but a lot of it is niche promotion.”

The ongoing push to attract visitors to spend dollars in local businesses earned increased attention from the chamber in May, after the organization hired a manager, Issaquah Highlands resident Nathan Perea, to focus on membership and tourism. The chamber also created a committee dedicated to tourism. Bolstering tourism is also a focus in the organization’s 2011-12 legislative agenda for city government.

Chamber officials said the tourism committee and Discover Issaquah mark the initial step to attract visitors to the area.

“People understand we can’t be all things to all people, but we want to make it clear and concise when they’re considering the city of Issaquah what is it they might expect to do,” Perea told audience members at the panel discussion.

The effort comes months after state legislators slashed all funding for tourism promotion. Washington is the only state to cut funding to zero.

“I think it’s exciting that we’re taking an aggressive step forward to say that while the state is cutting back in this, we are working with our partners to try and enhance tourism,” Bott said. “That feeds into so many other things in our community.”

The chamber plans to update the Discover Issaquah portal in November. The overhauled setup could include a calendar to highlight local events and information about tourism packages — perhaps a paragliding expedition or a getaway built around a trip to the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery amid spawning season.

“If anyone says, ‘There’s nothing going on in Issaquah,’ you can tell them differently,” Perea said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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