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US Open impact could mean a lasting benefit for the South Sound

Millions of people are watching the U.S. Open on TV and tens of thousands have descended on Pierce County, Tacoma and a certain golf course in University Place.

The instant winners are hotels and restaurants, caterers and those who operate fleets of charter buses. The immediate impact for governments will come with sales taxes and admission taxes and for department stores where, the rumor goes, sales of sensible shoes have greatly increased; to vendors including Windmill Gardens in Sumner, the firm that provided the plants and planter boxes that dot the public grounds at Chambers Bay.

But then what?

TORREY PINES

Following the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California — the most recent first-time course for an Open championship — the San Diego State University Center for Hospitality and Tourism Research commissioned a study of the economic impact the Open provided.

The total direct financial impact to the San Diego area was $73.62 million, “which in turn created an indirect impact of $68.46 million, for an estimated total financial impact of $142.08 million,” the report stated.

This was generated by 273,832 visitors who went through the gate, who spent an average of $199 per night at hotels, who spent $8.55 million on locally sourced food and beverage sales, who spent $11 million at the pro shop before the championship even began.

The visitors shopped to the tune of $23.5 million and spent $5.8 million on transportation. Sales tax generated $1.6 million and a tourism tax generated $297,784. Add such things as USGA spending prior to the event, plus wages earned by security and service personnel, plus rentals of equipment.

Precisely 75 percent of visitors earned an average wage above $75,000 per year, the study said.

UNIVERSITY PLACE

“First and foremost, everybody hopes that with the apparent success of the venue so far, from all indications sales have been going well and tickets have gone better than expected. The benchmarks all scream success,” said Mariza Craig, University Place assistant city manager and executive director of community and economic development.

“I think we’ve been conservative in our estimates,” she said. “Realistically, based on what we’ve learned from other host cities, we anticipated $1.2 million in sales and merchandise tax, and admission tax. I think maybe we’ve done a little bit better than expected.”

Success breeds more than the immediate money.

“I think the long-lasting benefit for the city is the branding that comes with being the home of Chambers Bay,” Craig said. “With this amount of visibility and media coverage, all of a sudden people know who we are.”

She uses a special metric. When she meets someone unfamiliar with the area, and when she says she’s from University Place, they typically ask where they might find the university.

“I want them to say, ‘Oh, that’s the home of the Chambers Bay,’ ” she said.

With 235,000 spectators here and 100 million people watching, she said, “We feel very fortunate. With long-lasting branding, we will have established ourselves as a destination.”

DISCOVERY

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said this week that she expects $8 million in sales tax revenue tied to the U.S. Open.

Her team, she said, has been working on plans for the Open for seven years, and again, it’s not just about the money.

“It gives us a sense of place on the world stage,” she said.

Pick a place on that stage. Environmental concerns? Chambers Bay is one of the most sustainable courses on the planet. Public interest? This is no posh country club. The course is county-owned and anyone can play.

“We’re the tide that’s lifting the boat,” McCarthy said.

And when the final ball drops into the final hole on Sunday (or Monday, if there’s a tie), the work will begin again.

“At the conclusion, we’re going to have the opportunity to get all the stakeholders together, the cities, the county, the state,” McCarthy said.

She wants to find a way to say to the United States Golf Association: “ ‘We want you back, and we are committed to do what it takes.’ The county will lead, to bring this economic driver back.”

And it’s not just about golf.

“I think many people are just discovering the South Sound,” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. “The next time they’re looking for a destination, they’ll come here. Tacoma’s renaissance has been taking place for about 25 years, and people are coming back now. More people are moving to the South Sound, and this is an opportunity to show the story of South Puget Sound.”

The golden aura of championship golf, the TV images and the outbound stories of a hospitable native population will last, Strickland said, not quite two years.

It will carry, she said, “an 18-month shelf life,”

She asks, “How do we keep that momentum going? This entire community came together. This is a really big deal, but what’s the next big deal?”

And she is pleased, she said, that visitors coming through Sea-Tac Airport will finally recognize the “Tac” thanks to signage that proclaims: “Find Yourself in Tacoma.”

ROSES, MEET DESTINY

Elected officials are not the only ones who see the possibilities.

Along with groups including the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, which has been focused for years on the potential benefits of the championship, other groups also have been executing plans.

Jaime Vogt, vice president of marketing at the Tacoma Regional Convention & Visitor Bureau, said this week, “I’ve been hearing people say ‘Tacoma’ and ‘University Place.’ This is putting us on the map as a destination now that we’ve got a world-famous championship golf course. We are definitely trying to ride this wave of publicity.”

Part of the follow-up effort will include what Vogt calls “a large-scale outdoor campaign.”

So look for “bus sides” and “bus wraps” that promote Tacoma.

Look for them in Portland.

“Restaurants are packed. Hotels are booked,” Vogt said. “This is our chance to shine, and we are shining.”

Danny Sink, the USGA representative and planner who has lately made Pierce County home for his family, said the impact to the hospitality industry will remain strong.

“Chambers Bay is a huge driver of hospitality, and it is going to be for 20 or 30 years,” Sink said.

Like Vogt and others, Shelly Schlumpf, president and CEO of the Puyallup-Sumner Chamber of Commerce, is working to attract visitors — and businesses — to the Valley.

Her chamber is nightly delivering local food (scones, doughnuts, fudge and such) to hotel guests in the Puyallup area. Gift bags include coffee, a T-shirt and chocolates.

“We want to show that we have great hospitality, and that this is a wonderful place to live, and a great place to do business,” she said.

Schlumpf was part of a delegation that visited the 2013 U.S. Open Championship at Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania.

“What I saw was potential,” she said. “We talked to a lot of people in the stands. We started out by trying to recognize who was attending. I only saw one welcome sign.”

Welcome signs now abound in the South Sound. Readerboards on many streets say hello, and visitors who park in Puyallup have received a booklet that offers, along with maps and pretty pictures, detailed explanations of local schools and the workforce, of potential development sites, of projects planned or under construction.

“It’s just getting the message in front of them,” Schlumpf said. “This isn’t just going to be for seven days.”

But will golf itself still be around when it comes time for Chambers Bay to deserve a repeat performance?

Course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed the third course ever in China in 1991. Today, Jones said recently, the Middle Kingdom can count more than 500.

There is a reason why Lexus and Rolex paid to occupy pride of place at the USGA Spectator Square at Chambers Bay.

So golf will likely remain a worldwide phenomenon, and Chambers Bay could well be a bellwether for sustainable change.

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