Former Monroe Chamber of Commerce executive director Annique Bennett was the honored presenter during February's chamber luncheon, giving chamber members a glimpse at what's on Snohomish County's agenda for tourism promotion in 2016.-á
Bennett served as the executive director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce from 2012 through 2014, until she was given an opportunity she couldn't pass up. She left Monroe to become the strategic tourism coordinator for Snohomish County, and began working out of the executive's office.
Bennett left a broad legacy in Monroe. In addition to helping the chamber relocate to its current location inside the Sultan-Monroe Masonic Lodge, she facilitated the creation and implementation of the new Choose Monroe website, developed relationships with local hotels and established the chamber as Monroe's Destination Marketing Organization (DMO).
Now serving on a larger scale, Bennett enjoys the opportunity to market Snohomish County as a whole, and is striving to establish a robust regional identity.-á
Her mission during the chamber lunch was twofold, highlighting her new Sky to Sound Water Trail project and inviting chamber members to participate in an upcoming free two-day tourism workshop in Monroe. There will be multiple opportunities to engage with Snohomish County this year, Bennett said, as the county works to implement innovative new programs designed to enhance tourism opportunities countywide.-á
Additionally, the county will be updating its strategic tourism plan.-á -á
"The projects that I'm going to talk to you about are going to inform that plan and give us unprecedented insight into the communities here in Sky Valley,GÇ¥ Bennett said.
Rural tourism workshop
The county will host a two-day introduction to the new Rural Tourism Workshop series 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, March 7, and Tuesday, March 8, at the Rock Church in Monroe. The workshops will be modeled after Oregon's successful Rural Tourism Studio program, a comprehensive training series meant to help rural communities develop a hearty tourism strategy.
To help with the series, the county has recruited Dan Moore of Pandion Consulting to be the facilitator.
"He is going to be bringing in folks who are industry experts and professionals on all kinds of topics that are really important for the community to know about,GÇ¥ Bennett said. "He's going to provide hands-on activities; all sorts of ways to learn about servicing visitors.GÇ¥
The first day will be a visioning session, and the second day will focus on tourism planning, Bennett said. The county is inviting city leaders, members of the business community, nonprofits, entrepreneurs and other community stakeholders from across the Skykomish and Snohomish River Valley region to participate in the two-part series kickoff.
The workshops will be ongoing through May, and collaboration is key, Bennett said. The goal is to create a coalition of leaders that will work together to develop a regional tourism strategy that can be implemented over time.
"This is a regional effort. We know that our communities standing alone are wonderful,GÇ¥ Bennett said. "The communities that are being very successful are banding together with their regional partners.GÇ¥-á
The workshops are free to attend and lunch is included.-á
"This is not something that you want to miss. We are the first in the state to do this,GÇ¥ Bennett said. "We are emulating the actual Rural Tourism Studio series that Travel Oregon has been so successful with.GÇ¥
To register for the Skykomish and Snohomish River Valley Rural Tourism Workshop on March 7-8, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/skykomish-and-snohomish-river-valley-rural-tourism-workshop-tickets-21360586088. A separate registration must be completed for each day.
Sky to Sound Water Trail
The concept for the Sky to Sound Water Trail began in Index, Bennett said, during a meeting with city leaders. She had gone to find out what Snohomish County could do to better support east county communities like Index, Gold Bar and Sultan, and the idea of a water trail was presented. The concept fit in neatly with Bennett's philosophy for developing tourism, so she told them, "I'll get right on that.GÇ¥
"What I like to look for are things that are underutilized. Things that are popular and important to groups outside of us, who want to invest in our communities,GÇ¥ Bennett said. "These projects and these priorities that will draw people to you, and give you a chance to see yourself from the outside.GÇ¥
The Skykomish River is known for being one of the last free-flowing rivers in Washington and cherished by outdoor recreationalists for that very reason. It boasts an official designation as a Washington State Wild and Scenic River, and is popular among anglers, river-rafters, hikers, inner-tubers and kayakers. Bennett's vision for the water trail project incorporates sustainability and good environmental stewardship in order to preserve the river's natural beauty.-á -á
"What we want, at the end of the day, is not just a huge, hot, heavily trafficked tourism attraction,GÇ¥ Bennett said. "What we really hope, at the end of the day, is that we can create community around this waterway.GÇ¥
Bennett took the concept and ran with it, spearheading the project in partnership with the Snohomish County Parks Department. The project is a collaborative effort, and is being planned by a multi-agency steering committee consisting of city officials, community leaders, river advocacy groups and other stakeholders. The committee is working with National Park Service representative Sue Abbott, who specializes in rivers, trails and conservation assistance.
Snohomish County Senior Park Planner Kevin Teague outlined the water trail's parameters. He credited Bennett's passion for having propelled the project forward.
"The cool thing is she's put together this entire coalition of agencies and cities and groups that are affected by the water trail, and every one of them share that same passion,GÇ¥ Teague said. "So this project has got a lot of really good energy behind it.GÇ¥
The 84-mile water trail would start with both the north and south forks of the Skykomish River, and follow U.S. 2 all the way out to Everett. The plan is to develop and enhance existing county-owned access points along the way, to create an organized and cohesive recreational system. The first priority, Teague said, is to develop a comprehensive inventory of what is already there, in order to identify both strengths and challenges.
The committee, which has been meeting on a monthly basis, broke up into groups recently, in order to better tackle the inventory process.
"We've got groups working on inventorying different sections,GÇ¥ Teague said. "We're going to gather all that information and put it into maps and that will be the beginning stages for this water trail plan.GÇ¥
The county has identified parks properties that could be established and promoted as water trail access points, such as Steelhead County Park near Sultan and Lords Hill Park in Monroe.
Part of the economic development piece of the project is figuring out how to integrate the water trail into the surrounding communities, Teague said. A system that would allow a kayaker to pull off in their kayak, walk into town and eat at a local restaurant before continuing their journey would be a fantastic amenity, he said.
The collaboration with the National Parks Service is a significant benefit, Bennett said.
"We want to nominate this for national designation, and we are working with somebody at the parks service who can help us make that happen,GÇ¥ she said.
The project is still in its very early stages. The committee will be engaging in listening tours in order to hear concerns and feedback from the community. Once the inventory process is complete, the committee will develop its wish list, documenting what is needed at each access point along the way, such as bathrooms, equipment rental facilities, garbage cans and safety enhancements.
Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas said he is excited about the project's possibilities.
"Our river is a valuable asset here in Monroe,GÇ¥ he said. "I think that this is a wonderful opportunity.GÇ¥Photos by Chris Hendrickson An upstream view of the Skykomish River directly east of Steelhead County Park near Sultan.Strategic Tourism Coordinator Annique Bennett shared her vision for tourism enhancement in Snohomish County during a recent chamber lunch.