DARRINGTON — Consider this marketing challenge: You’ve been hired to entice visitors to an area that offers fun, adventure and natural beauty, but you can’t overlook the fact that a terrible tragedy recently happened there.
That’s the task facing Jacque Beamer.
Her Mount Vernon firm, BrandQuery, this week received a $150,000 state contract to draw summer tourists to the Arlington, Oso and Darrington areas, which still suffer emotionally and economically from the March 22 mudslide that killed 43 people, including two still missing.
“We have to keep in the forefront of our minds that many people lost their lives, and people have lost their family members and loved ones,” Beamer said. “We want them to feel a part of this whole thing.”
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Beamer said she has not spoken to the families of people lost in the slide, but would like to. She said she believes promoting the riverside communities can be done in a way that is respectful of their loss.
Thursday evening, Beamer heard from about 60 people at a Darrington meeting held to gather input about what the short-term marketing campaign could highlight, including river rafting, a rodeo, a bluegrass festival, a music festival.
Speaker after speaker described Darrington as a worried community, with its main route to the outside world, Highway 530, still buried by the slide.
“Summer business is what allows us to put some money in the bank to carry us through the slow winter season,” said Kevin Ashe, co-owner of the Darrington IGA store that’s been in his family 35 years. “If we don’t get people up here in the summer, it’s going to be a long winter for these businesses.”
Word that the clearing of Highway 530 is going faster than expected, and that a single lane could be open in mid- to late June, is good news to Darrington businesses.
But it still means another crucial month or so of difficult travel on a narrow, local-access route around the slide’s debris field.
On its single lane, traffic flows in one direction at a time at 10 mph, behind pilot cars that travel from each direction just once an hour.
Locals have come to jokingly refer to it as a ferry, albeit on dry land. The Thursday session in Darrington, for example, opened with an announcement that the meeting would end at 8:30 p.m. sharp, so people headed back down the valley could “catch the 9 o’clock ferry.”
Even when Highway 530 reopens, it will be a single lane that also requires alternating one-way traffic, said Travis Phelps, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
Completion of an elevated, rebuilt Highway 530 is expected in October.
Darrington residents say their isolation is reinforced by highway signs that say Highway 530 is closed, even though state officials have said traffic bound to Darrington events may use the local-access bypass.
“Everybody thinks we’re closed off and they can’t get here,” said Margie Bates, vice president of the Timberbowl Rodeo, June 21-22.
Martha Rasmussen, of the Darrington Area Business Association, said Mother’s Day weekend, when some travelers come to the area to hike low-elevation trails, often offers an early hint of the season’s tourism traffic.
But this Mother’s Day, “We went out and checked and the trails were empty,” said Rasmussen, whose group organizes Darrington Day, on May 31, an event to honor local art, music, heritage and community accomplishments.
Even with its delays, the Highway 530 local-access road offers a more direct route between the Seattle area and Darrington than the much-used detour via Highway 20 in Skagit County.
The marketing campaign by Beamer’s firm is due to be completely rolled out by June 12 and concluded by Aug. 12.
Beamer said she expects it to include print and broadcast advertising, along with Internet and social-media components and other features. It will target travelers from the Seattle area, Skagit and Whatcom counties and British Columbia.
Despite the challenges that the contract presents, Beamer is hopeful visitors will respond.
“‘After tragedies, people want to help one another,” she said. “This could be a great way for people to show their support for these communities.”
Jack Broom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2222