Wednesday, April 14, 2010 | 2 a.m.
The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge will be the first concrete-steel composite arch bridge built in the United States. It spans a 2,000-foot gorge and hovers 900 feet above the Colorado River. More than 20,000 vehicles are expected travel it each day.
With no traffic on the Hoover Dam, one of Southern Nevada’s top attractions could be opened up for concerts and light shows. And because the bridge plan includes parking on both sides and pedestrian lanes, people can walk across as they do on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. About 14 percent of tourists to Southern Nevada visited areas beyond the Strip, and the Hoover Dam was the No. 1 off-Strip attraction. Nearly 800,000 people paid to tour it last year. And the Bureau of Reclamation expects those numbers to increase once the bridge is completed.
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Hoover Dam bypass bridge
After being awed by Yosemite, Esther Hanner drove alongside a man-made wonder in the making just outside Boulder City.
“We were on our way back to Nashville and we came around one of those hairpin turns at Hoover Dam and looked up and saw just those columns they had up at that time,” she recalls. “It’s amazing and good to know that people can still get together to build something incredible like that bridge.”
Ever since that June day in 2007, she has been following the progress of the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge from afar — via the Internet almost exclusively. She has been surprised and disappointed that she has seen so little national news coverage about it.
“The nation needs to know about this,” she says.
For a region that prides itself on its self-promotion and neon “Look at this!” attitude, there has been little capitalization so far on the bridge that provokes some form of “Look at that!” from just about everyone who sees it.
The Federal Highway Administration expects contractors to complete construction by Nov. 1. The span will divert all traffic off the dam, bring long-haul truckers over Black Canyon for the first time in almost a decade and should reduce travel times for tourists — unless those tourists want to stop to marvel at the bridge.
Tourism experts figure a lot of them will, and tour guides say it has the potential to be half of a one-two combination that’s a guaranteed knockout. It’s right next to one of the seven wonders of the industrial world, after all.
When construction on the bridge began, it was covered by the mainstream and travel media. Most of the stories focused on the transportation benefits such as shorter travel times for drivers and a shorter route for truckers. The increased publicity brought a few more tourists to the dam and into dependent businesses, such as hotels and restaurants in Boulder City.
And that was before there was anything to look at.
Hopes are high that the bridge’s grand opening will bring a much-needed shot of international publicity to the region.
So is the region ready to make the most of it?
Well, the companies that give tours of the dam have incorporated information about the bridge into their presentations. Some of them have incorporated photos of the bridge in their online promotional materials. Boulder City business owners are adding bridge trivia to their dam information repertoire and clamoring for better signage to lure tourists downtown. Some plan to increase their Internet marketing and hope to persuade MapQuest and Google Maps administrators to include Boulder City in online map results for the Hoover Dam.
But a large-scale industrywide plan for marketing the bridge as a tourist attraction has yet to take shape.
Professional marketers and the Boulder City Chamber of Commerce say they know the bridge opening is coming, and they know they want to optimize Southern Nevada’s exposure. But as far as a game plan, there isn’t one. At least not yet.
“We certainly recognize the value that Hoover Dam has as an attraction and have had discussions about ways we can leverage the opening of the bridge to attract new visitors to Las Vegas, and more importantly Boulder City,” Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spokesman Vince Alberta said. “We’ll be evaluating that and making final decisions (on what to do) between now and the summer. We need to do more field research first.”
Tour operators say word hasn’t yet got out that the bridge will be more than a way around Hoover Dam’s mind-numbing traffic.
The bypass will be the first concrete-steel composite arch bridge built in the United States, and is considered something of an engineering wonder. It spans a jaw-dropping 2,000-foot gorge and hovers a breathtaking 900 feet above the Colorado River. More than 20,000 vehicles are expected to roll over the bridge each day. And because it is styled to blend in with the adjacent Hoover Dam, it’s going to be quite handsome, too.
It gets oohs and aahs from tourists visiting the dam.
“It’s very inspiring to look at,” said Earl Jobson, sales and marketing director at Pink Jeep Tours. “It’s a major architectural achievement and (the tourists) are in awe of the engineering involved in it.”
When the bridge opens, the dam will be closed to through traffic and become a full-time tourist attraction, according to Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Bob Walsh.
That opens the door to all kinds of special activities, tourism experts say.
Many people want to see the dam used as an event venue for concerts and light shows. Because the new bridge plan includes parking on both ends and pedestrian lanes, people can walk across like they do on the Golden Gate Bridge. Tourism experts say the possibilities are endless.
“The dam is a wonderful venue and without the traffic you could have all kinds of pedestrian events,” Nevada Tourism Alliance President Thomas Tait said. “There’s a good possibility of that happening.”
Marketing experts say it’s just as important to market the bypass well as it is to market it at the height of publicity. This will be the local tourism industry’s big chance to sell Southern Nevada tourism to a global audience. But they have to sell it right. It’s not enough for people to see the bridge and dam on TV and think they’re cool. They need to be persuaded to get out of the armchair and book a trip.
It helps that the dam is one of the Southern Nevada’s top attractions, Alberta said. About 14 percent of tourists to Southern Nevada visited areas beyond the Strip, and Hoover Dam was the No. 1 off-Strip attraction. Nearly 800,000 people paid to tour the Hoover Dam last year, Walsh said. And the bureau expects those numbers to increase once the bridge is completed. In 2000, before the dam was closed to truck traffic and security measures caused increases in traffic, 1.2 million people paid to tour it.
“Visiting Hoover Dam after the bridge opens should be a great experience,” Walsh said. “There will be less traffic and no construction. And we’re looking at other ways to improve the visitor experience.”
A small poster display about the bridge, and a model of it are already in the upper level of dam's visitor center, near the observation deck door. But Walsh said he was unaware of any plans for anything more than that at the dam.
His federal agency also has not yet determined how the bypass will change visitation at the dam and is evaluating whether it needs to come up with a new marketing strategy.
“In many ways it might be a much better experience because the traffic level will be down,” Walsh said. “For a lot of people, the dam is a destination. They purposefully come to do the tour. We don’t know how many people do the tours on the spur of the moment because they’re already driving over.”
But the bridge provides a way to attract more than the usual tourists. While the number of people visiting Southern Nevada has held relatively steady in recent months, they’re not spending money the way they used to. The bridge opening will be a chance to attract tourists who will stay longer and do more while they’re here, Boulder City Chamber of Commerce President Jill Lagan said.
They’re expected to want to buy O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge refrigerator magnets, T-shirts and snow globes — if anyone has them made and is ready to sell by then.
Back in Tennessee, Hanner is just hoping someone has been putting together a documentary about the bridge construction.
“Surely someone has been doing that, haven’t they? I thought that would be the kind of thing Las Vegas would want.”