In Ashley Comar's perfect world, travelers would spill from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport into nearby hotels. They would shop at Tukwila's Westfield Southcenter mall, spend an afternoon kayaking off the Redondo pier and finish up with dinner at SeaTac's 13 Coins Restaurant.
They might take their kids to Virtual Sports in Tukwila to play laser tag before heading off to tour Mount Rainier just two hours away. And they would definitely tell their friends how affordable their trip was, and how much fun they had.
Comar — marketing communications manager at Seattle Southside Visitor Services — is a driving force behind a new and improved Southwest King County. This is no longer the land of cheap motels, ratty apartments and rampant prostitution.
Late last year, the cities of Des Moines, SeaTac and Tukwila joined forces to create a new public corporation that will manage tourism promotion for the three cities. They want to piggy-back on Seattle's $6 billion-and-growing tourism industry, but if Comar and other leaders have their way, those three cities will become destinations in their own right.
"Only some locals know about the Green River Killer," said Comar, referring to Gary Ridgway, the infamous character who once prowled the prostitution-littered streets near the airport before being convicted of 48 murders. "Most people don't know the history."
Comar and other community leaders readily tick off the region's attractions: Redondo Beach; Saltwater State Park; indoor skydiving; Westfield Southcenter, the largest shopping mall in the Pacific Northwest; paddling, kayaking and boating opportunities; hotel prices 30 percent lower than those in Seattle; and world-class restaurants with pristine views of Puget Sound.
"This is a community that's taken strides to correct the deficiencies of the past," said Jeff Robinson, economic development manager at the city of SeaTac.
On top of an already existing 1 percent lodging tax, the effort is funded by a new $2 per room surcharge levied on hotel operators. That will triple the tourism budget to more than $4 million annually.
Sordid past, promising future
Perceptions, though, die hard. To succeed, the cities — especially SeaTac and Tukwila — must overcome a gritty history.
For decades, King County leaders treated much of the unincorporated area around the airport as a dumping ground. Apartments prevailed, creating a sense of transiency. Crime and prostitution flourished, especially on the notorious Sea-Tac strip.
That changed dramatically in 1989 when SeaTac residents voted to incorporate. According to HistoryLink.org, "the amount of prostitution and related crimes fell dramatically." More recently, crime in Tukwila plummeted after federal authorities seized three crime-ridden motels in the city two years ago.
While Sea-Tac Airport — with its jet noise and industrial sprawl — has long been a curse as well as a blessing to its neighbors, the three cities are increasingly taking advantage of their proximity to the nation's fastest-growing large airport, which handled a record 37.5 million passengers last year. A proposed $600 million expansion project anticipates a whopping 66 million people flying through Sea-Tac in two decades.
Already, SeaTac's Cedarbrook Lodge, which just underwent its own $16 million expansion, is profiting from a national trend of holding business meetings in or near airports as a way to avoid wasting time getting through congested cities.
Still, the challenges of selling the region as a destination are immense. The rate of violent crime in both SeaTac and Tukwila remains above the national average. SeaTac officials insist the statistics are misleading because the city's hospitality-and-airport-driven employment base far exceeds that of its 27,000 residents.
Another obstacle is erasing the region's reputation among current residents. To most Seattleites, SeaTac is known for an airport, Tukwila for a shopping mall and Des Moines for its marina — if it's known at all.
Though the coming marketing campaign will focus on visitors rather than locals — especially business groups — Seattle Southside Executive Director Katherine Kertzman stresses the need for local residents to "be tourists in their own back yards." That means talking up quality of life to friends and relatives, here and elsewhere.
"We need to chip away at that old reputation," she said. "There have been a lot of changes over the past couple decades."
Frank Welton has seen them all.
Welton, the area general manager at Hilton Worldwide, runs the Doubletree and Hilton hotels in SeaTac. He also serves on the board of the new Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority — the newly created public corporation and separate legal entity that will manage tourism promotion.
Welton first came to the area in 1993, shortly after SeaTac became a city. He worked closely with city leaders as they cleaned up Pacific Highway South, now International Boulevard, and beefed up police patrols in troubled neighborhoods.
Today, the changes are palpable.
"It's interesting. Twenty years ago you would never have seen passengers and flight crews walking to their hotels from the airport," said Welton. "Now, it's a regular daily occurrence to see people in the city of SeaTac walking up and down sidewalks, or just going to one of the local restaurants, and feeling very comfortable about it."
To some degree, the tourism push is already working. In 2013, visitors spent a whopping $659.2 million in the three cities, according to a study compiled by research firm Dean Runyan Associates.
Every dollar spent on marketing generated a return on investment of $14.
The tourism push is just one of many economic development initiatives the cities are undertaking.
- In SeaTac, Seattle-based Wright Runstad & Co. announced plans for a 1.2-million-square-foot office, retail and conference hotel project next to the Angle Lake light-rail station under construction at South 200th Street and 28th Avenue South. A 289-unit senior living complex is also in the works.
- In Tukwila, real estate developers Omar and Christine Lee are building a 19-story, $120 million hotel and apartment complex, Washington Place, in the Southcenter area. When finished, it will become the city's largest building.
- Des Moines has numerous small developments underway, including luxury apartments, new retail space and a Four Points by Sheraton Hotel slated to open this summer on Pacific Highway South.
"Like any other area, there's always going to be problems and challenges," Welton said. "But we have something positive to sell here. You can see it happening."
Southside tourism: A closer look at three cities
Popular attractions: Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden, South SeaTac Park, North SeaTac Park, Angle Lake Park
Popular attractions: Family Fun Center Amusement Park, Sykart Indoor Racing Center, Westfield Southcenter, Starfire Sports, Museum of Flight (nearby)
Popular attractions: Des Moines Marina, Des Moines Beach Park, Redondo Beach, Des Moines Creek Park Trail
Tourism rises in Seattle's south suburbs
Tourism is big business in Seattle's suburbs. Visitors spent almost $660 million in the cities of Des Moines, Tukwila and SeaTac in 2013, a 5 percent increase over the previous year. According to a Dean Runway study compiled for Seattle Southside Visitor Services — the tourism promotion arm of the three cities south of Seattle — two-thirds of visitors would recommend Seattle Southside to a friend and 74 percent would visit again in the next three years. Here's a breakdown of the cities' tourism economy:
$659.2 million: Annual visitor spending
$31.3 million: Local tax receipts
$14: Return on investment for every $1 invested on tourism
5,320: Employees in the tourism industry
3.54: Nights a typical visitor stays
$1,007: Spending by average visitor
1,600: Average miles a visitor traveled to the area
Rob Smith is editor in chief of the Puget Sound Business Journal.