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Only Steps Forward: New committee to focus on sports tourism, attracting visitors

By Jonathan P. LaBonté

Mayor of Auburn

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Norway Savings Bank Arena was host to yet another game for the women’s hockey program at the University of Maine. While the result was a tie with the rival team from the University of New Hampshire, the attendance was still more than three times what they typically see for home crowds at the Alfond Arena in Orono.

In the coming months, the City of Auburn will be looking at opportunities to submit bids to host national sports tournaments out of the facility, drawing thousands of participants and spectators if we are successful. Auburn’s Arena is not the Cross Arena in Portland, nor is it the Cross Center in Bangor, but it is slowly filling a unique niche for sporting events in northern New England. And thankfully, that’s not all it is now doing.

At the end of November, the city announced jointly with the Maine Campground Owners Association (MECOA) that their annual camping and RV show would relocate from a Portland venue to the Norway Savings Arena beginning in 2017. This will mark the first time that the arena has also served as a convention space. With the two rinks available for vendors and exhibits, our facility can now serve most of the largest tradeshows that travel to Maine.

MECOA highlighted our ease of access to southern Maine’s population and the outdoor opportunities of central and northern Maine as one of the keys to their decision to relocate the event here.

The original intent of the arena wasn’t just to serve as the home for our youth and high school hockey programs; it was always envisioned as an attractor of people that could visit and spend time and money in our community. It is by attracting people to our community that we can support local retail and restaurants and attract others to join.

With that said, there are a couple key challenges to maintaining the current momentum and expanding on it. How do we collectively work to attract events to our community and, once they are here, how do we maximize the economic opportunity?

Hospitality businesses, sports coaches, restaurant staff members, citizens with an eye for details and other skillsets would be needed to help us build our sales pitch to national events, as well as for us to grow our own local events that would draw teams and visitors from away.

Once they are here, however, many residents have rightfully noted the limited connectivity for people at the arena to easily walk to and patronize some of the area businesses near the mall. The sea of parking, laid out in a different era than the one the City of Auburn is trying to build for now, also creates the appearance of a struggling economy. We also need residents that have an interest in real estate development that could partner with us, and property owners, to ensure the city can maximize the spin-off from the potential of the area as a center of activity.

If either of these efforts—growing the number of events we host or maximizing the economic potential around the arena—interest you, I need to hear from you. In the coming week, I will be announcing the creation of a Mayor’s Committee on Sports Tourism and Visitor Impact.

The committee will meet no more than once per month, with direct support from Marc Gosselin, our arena general manager and the director of sports tourism for the city. The volunteers on this committee will have an opportunity to help shape the direction of tourism for our community and also be supported in bringing recommendations directly to the Auburn City Council.

We will be making postings online and elsewhere once the committee is formed to seek volunteer nominations. But if you’d like to get a direct note with the details when they are formally announced, please email me at jlabonte@auburnmaine.gov.

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