By Jonathan P. LaBonté
Mayor of Auburn
Memorial Day weekend has come to be known as the unofficial start of summer. For a state like Maine, with so much of our economy dependent on visitor spending, it’s the official start of busy season.
Tens of millions of visitors come to Maine every year, and those numbers are growing rapidly. As one would suspect from the marketing done through Maine Office of Tourism, those visitors are predominantly heading to the home lighthouses and lobsters: Maine’s coast.
So what can be done to lure these out-of-state spenders just a mere 20 miles inland to Maine’s second-largest urban area? Surely, our hospitality businesses and restaurants would benefit greatly from drawing more people here in the summer months.
The quick answer by many may just be to market the region. The claim that “We are already a tourist hub, offering what these visitors want, but the only challenge is that we haven’t told them” is a bit short-sighted.
When you host events in your region, do those events stand out from similar events in Maine or New England? Do mostly local residents attend them or will those from other regions, states or even countries travel to you for the day or weekend?
This requires the community as a whole, as well as those who host these events, to be able to look critically at them if we want to increase their impact.
An example would be the Liberty Festival. This is a great local event that draws mostly people from our region of Maine for the music and fireworks. What would it take for the festival committee, with community support, to grow and adapt this event to draw even more people from a bigger area in the summer? Or, perhaps, this festival is perfect in its role as a community celebration and its focus shouldn’t be on economic impact.
For other events that already draw thousands from long distances, what may be done to increase the numbers further and make it easier for them to spend more time and money in our local economy?
In this case, I think immediately of the Dempsey Challenge and its growth since its launch just a handful of years ago. While the event is the largest fundraising event for the Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing, there is no denying that the extended weekend also yields barely an empty room in our hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts.
Do we know the experience these travelers have? How difficult it might be to reach L-A from their starting point? In speaking with one lodging facility operator, I’ve heard of landings at Logan Airport in Boston and the cumbersome venture north.
With the pending launch of the Concord Coach service directly from Logan or South Station to Lewiston-Auburn, are we considering now how to coordinate visitors traveling more seamlessly to our city and for the events we host?
Beyond our local events fine-tuning their impact on local job creators, L-A can also think critically about our assets that are truly unique and offer a competitive advantage over other places in northern New England. Since most tourists are from the Boston and New York regions, we need to offer an experience that is either different or of a higher quality than what they can find or have found elsewhere.
Can we pitch the easy access to remote paddling and hiking experiences, like those offered in Maine’s fifth-largest state park, the Androscoggin Riverlands, but just 20 minutes north of downtown amenities?
While we have a growing riverwalk system, don’t most regions with riverfront build walking trails? What might we do with ours that would be a differentiator? Why walk our riverwalk when you could walk dozens of others?
Unlike the Bangor waterfront, which seeks to draw 10,000 to 15,000 people for a single concert in one location, there’s no reason our riverwalk, which links so many venues, couldn’t be a host to music or performance festivals focused on independent or emerging acts.
Imagine walking from Festival Plaza to Simard Payne Park. Or Fountain Plaza at the Bates Mill to Bonney Park. More than a dozen urban parks threaded together by a riverwalk makes for a very attractive host city for a major event.
We’re in Maine. It’s summer. Now let’s all work together to lure those visitors into our local businesses.