EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. — "A limo? What's with the limo? Geez!"
Philip Lamers couldn't believe his eyes as he left Eastmont Junior High School with hundreds of other euphoric students for the last time this school year.
Joseph Budinich's Lincoln Navigator limo stretched alongside the curb, gleaming white, awaiting Noemi Pineda, a group of her friends — and one party crasher.
Andrea Vasquez, 14, did some fast negotiating once she saw the vehicle.
"Will you give me a ride? To my friend's house? Just over there? Can, like, some of my friends come? Like Vania. She's really cool, and ..."
"Dude!" interrupted Pineda — a mild reprimand.
"I'll only take Vania."
Pineda said her parents hired Budinich to drive her and her 14 friends around for two hours on the last day of school. Most of the group will move on to high school next year. He deposited them at the Coast Hotel to continue celebrating.
Budinich's wasn't the only flashy ride at the curb.
Katrina Anderson drove up in her stretch Hummer limo to lavish some star treatment on another group of students. The vehicles command attention as they prowl the roadways, like giant sharks gliding over the ocean bottom. Inside, soft leather upholstery, drinks, disco lights, and skull-pounding sound systems keep the party going, whether it's from the church to a wedding reception, or from Wenatchee to Seattle and back for a Mariners game.
Owners of the region's limousine companies say special events and tours to area wineries are keeping them busy. But none are quitting their "day jobs."
An Internet search shows the vehicles cost from about $40,000 to $100,000 or more, depending on the make, year and condition. State law requires each vehicle be insured for in excess of $1 million. Maintenance and fuel prices in vehicles that get some 10 miles per gallon put a further squeeze on profit margins, even at rental rates of about $75 to $200 per hour.
Boom times tend to concentrate on weekends, leaving the vehicles relatively idle during the week. And Eastern Washington's cold winters slow limo activity to a crawl from January through March, they say.
"It's just kind of supplemental income. I could maybe live off it, but it would be pretty scrapy (like scraping by)," said Budinich, 46. When he's not running his three-year-old Hat's Off Limousine & Town Car Service, Budinich works on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska and does income-tax returns in the Seattle area.
Anderson supplements her Katrina's Classic Limousines business with a bridal boutique and wedding planning. Her husband, David Anderson, works at The Wenatchee World. Their 11-year-old limo business is among the region's longest established. Their cars are familiar sights at area high schools during prom and graduation seasons. On Friday, their Hummer worked from 11:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., driving around with groups of reveling Wenatchee High School grads.
"It's the surprise factor," Anderson said. "There aren't too many surprises in life, and it's nice when people go the extra mile. A big draw is you can take a lot of people to one place and not have to worry about safety."
That's the practical side, Erin Poff, co-owner of Northwest Limousine says. "A lot of people like to go out, and the DUI thing is a real big issue," Poff said. "You don't have to worry about who's going to be your designated driver, and if he's going to stay sober. You've got a driver and it's safe."
Poff, 36, owns the company and its stretch Ford Excursion with her business partner, Jimmy Hull, and their spouses. She works as a bartender and cocktail waitress at the Buzz Inn in East Wenatchee. Hull is the manager there.
Their business is off to a good start, she says.
"It's almost more than what we were expecting," she said. "We've been very busy."
Budinich says quinceañera parties make up a lot of his business. Over the throbbing beat of "Don't Matter" by hip-hop artist Akon, he gave his limo full of young partiers a few tips Tuesday before pulling out of the Eastmont Junior High parking lot.
"There's an iPod hookup here if you have an iPod. If you need anything else, I'm up front," he said. Later, he added, "Believe it or not, driving a limo is probably one of the funnest jobs in the world. People are having a good time and smiling. It just makes you feel good."
Source: The Wenatchee World Online (Washington)