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Originally published November 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 29, 2007 at 12:25 PM

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State risks losing its share of Olympics bounty

Concern grows that border delays, lack of marketing and road projects could choke off benefits to businesses here.

Seattle Times business reporter

VANCOUVER, B.C. — A bright-blue digital clock on an eye-catching sculpture counts down each day, hour, minute and second before this city hosts the Winter Olympics in 2010.

South of the border, prospects don't look quite so bright. The clock is also ticking on Washington state if it hopes to reap the benefits of business and tourism brought by the games.

Border-crossing headaches, massive road-construction projects and new passport requirements could jeopardize those economic opportunities, officials from Washington and British Columbia say. And when it comes to tourism, Washington state is late to the game.

State officials have estimated as much as $200 million is at stake for Western Washington in potential Olympics-related economic benefits for hotels, retailers and others, not to mention the longer-term gain from showcasing the region's attractions.

But lawmakers who visited Vancouver recently said the state has to do a better job promoting itself to the world if it hopes to attract more visitors and participants, including sports teams planning to train in the region two years before the event.

The challenges Washington faces are part of a larger debate over how the state and its neighboring province can maintain thriving ties in the face of rifts between Canada and the United States on border issues.

One of the biggest thorns has been the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security policy in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks. Starting Jan. 31, it requires citizens of the U.S. and Canada to present passports or birth certificates plus government-issued photo IDs to cross by land or sea into the U.S. Previously, passports were required only for air travel.

Sukumar Periwal, director of international relations in the office of British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, called the new rule "a unilateral measure that hurt cross-border tourism and trade without increasing real security."

G. Kathleen Hill, deputy consul general at the U.S. Consulate in Vancouver, pointed to a fundamental difference between border priorities: While the U.S. priority is security, Canadians value the free flow of goods and people, she said.

As an alternative to the new passport requirement, in January Washington state will begin issuing an optional Enhanced Driver's License, which contains a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip that can transmit data wirelessly, allowing border officials to quickly retrieve information about the holder from a database.

British Columbia is working with federal officials on a similar system that Canadians could use in place of a more-expensive passport, said John van Dongen, B.C.'s minister of state for intergovernmental relations. But the chips have raised privacy questions with people on both sides of the border.

Road projects

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Large-scale construction projects have also hampered travel between Canada and Washington state, and some are scheduled to run into January 2010, when activity around the games will be ramping up. The Vancouver Olympics begin Feb. 12, followed by the Paralympics on March 12.

A $72 million project to overhaul the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility at the Peace Arch in Blaine and a nearby Interstate 5 interchange began this fall and is expected to cause backups for two years. Southbound inspection lanes have been reduced from seven to four or fewer.

Both sides are noticing a drop in travel. From January to April of this year, same-day visitors from the U.S. to B.C. dropped by almost 13 percent, Periwal said.

Wait times at the border grew over the summer because of heightened security checks. Businesses in Whatcom County have complained such delays are discouraging Canadians from coming to the United States at all.

One Washington lawmaker said the U.S. government is fixated on security instead of economic opportunity.

The approach "is having negative consequences nobody recognized," said state Rep. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle.

As for Olympics-related opportunities, "We could squander it all away and lose a best friend in the process," he said.

David Davidson, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, said he did not think the new passport requirement would have a long-term negative impact on the region. In a survey of 11,000 drivers along the border in July, less than 1 percent said they would stop crossing in response.

"The single biggest thing we could do is make sure roads are ready," Davidson said.

Crossing between British Columbia and Washington must improve before an estimated 250,000 visitors arrive in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics, Periwal said.

"Failure to manage border congestion is not an option before the eyes of 3 billion TV viewers," he said. "What are they going to see -- backups for three hours?"

State and federal agencies on both sides of the border should coordinate plans, commit resources to finish construction well in advance of the games and increase border staff to process travelers without lengthy delays, Washington and B.C. officials said.

Luring teams

If it can successfully manage border issues, the region can start cashing in on tourism even before the games begin, said Ian Burkheimer of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER), a regional planning forum.

Competitors in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City included 51 alpine teams, 42 cross-country teams, 19 snowboarding teams and 34 biathlon teams, he said.

Teams are starting to train this winter and looking for conditions similar to the ones they'll find at the Whistler venue in British Columbia. Next winter they'll come back for more rigorous training and pre-Olympic test events.

Burkheimer has already been in contact with more than 40 teams to talk about the benefits of training in the Pacific Northwest. He estimates a team would spend $20,000 to $100,000 on hotels, food, lift tickets and other expenses for a two-week visit.

"There's probably not enough capacity in B.C. to host everybody," he said. "This is really our opportunity to demonstrate there are world-class snow-sports venues right here in Washington state and open the door to Europe and the rest of the world."

But Washington needs to step up its marketing efforts, said state Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley. Oregon is better known in the snow-sports world. And Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski is sending letters to international coaches touting the state's training facilities. Burkheimer encouraged Washington to do the same.

Enlisting a local celebrity or athlete to promote the state could help build visibility, said Antonio Sanchez, director of economic development for Lt. Gov. Brad Owen.

Pflug noted that while Vancouver has rented prime real estate in Beijing next to Tiananmen Square to market the city and games, Washington state hasn't picked a location or a strategy for showing itself to the world in Vancouver.

"We've had this information for years, but we still haven't secured a prime location for showcasing Washington goods and services," she said. "This is our opportunity on the world stage."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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