AUGUSTA — The biggest winners in the annual high school basketball tournaments at the Augusta Civic Center may not be Rams, Eagles, Bulldogs or Bobcats.

The big winners — at least financially — have been city businesses that attract some of the more than 30,000 fans and athletes who packed the Civic Center last week for a mid-winter period when business would otherwise be slow.

“We’ve seen a huge increase; the restaurant is rarely full Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but it has been this week,” said Jackie Barnicoat, bar manager at Rooster’s Coal Fired Pizza & Tap House, which is adjacent to the sprawling Augusta Civic Center parking lots. “People are wearing school colors, jerseys — it’s a great energy. We’re very grateful for it.”

She said the restaurant added staff for the tournament week, which is also a school vacation week.

Dana Colwill, director of the Augusta Civic Center, said the city-owned arena can count on 30,000 to 35,000 people coming through its doors every year for the week of the high school basketball tournaments. While that’s good for the civic center — accounting for nearly 40 percent of concession sales for the entire year — it’s also good for retailers in the surrounding area.

“The real economic winners are the surrounding businesses — that’s why this building was put here in the first place,” Colwill said while preparing for Friday’s hoops contests. “Restaurants, gas stations, they gear up for it, beef up with extra people because they know it’s coming.”

The financial impact can vary greatly depending on which teams go far in the playoffs.

Local teams with strong followings, such as Cony High School in Augusta, bring in loyal local crowds. Others that aren’t nearby — such as Edward Little, Forest Hills, and Monmouth — have many fans who travel to take in the games, Colwill said.

Most private schools don’t bring crowds that large to the tournament, with the notable exception of Hyde School in Bath, which annually brings buses full of rowdy students.

Despite their small size, some class D schools, such as Richmond and Valley, bring large crowds of fans to the tournament games.

“Some of the small schools, it seems like they must empty the town,” Colwill said.

Some far-flung teams and their fans come from so far away that they spend the night.

Meghann Blethen, corporate sales manager for Giri Hotels, which owns both the Best Western Plus Civic Center and Comfort Inn a short distance north on Civic Center Drive, said the hotels do better when teams from far away go deep in the tournament.

“It’s a unique time period for us, because those bookings are very much last minute, based on the progress of their team,” Blethen said. “We’re just thrilled to host the teams from across the state and be part of this exciting time of year.”

A well-timed boost
It’s a time of year in central Maine that, otherwise, would be relatively quiet.
“In February, there just aren’t as many tourists and other guests of that nature,” Blethen said. “We certainly get a nice boost from the games. If we didn’t have the basketball tournament at the Augusta Civic Center, our occupancy would be far lower this week.”

Lou Craig, owner of College Carryout, a pizza and sandwich shop a short distance down Mount Vernon Avenue from the civic center, said he does especially well with local fans, at least in part because he sponsors local teams.

Supporters of the top-ranked undefeated Cony girls’ team, which faced off in the Eastern Class A final against second-seed Edward Little on Friday night — and won to advance to the final — ordered a bunch of pizzas from College Carryout for after the game.

Craig said he can see the increased traffic going by his shop during the tournaments, and said businesses that cater to fans’ needs are bound to a get a percentage of the additional business.

Peter Thompson, executive director of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber doesn’t have hard numbers on how much of a boost members see during tourney time. But it is significant, he said.

“It brings thousands of players, guests, families and fans, so it’s a nice, significant bubble to help support the local economy,” Thompson said. “A lot of people are eating out, buying supplies, fuel, and so on, in the local area. If you’re here for a tournament game, people will also say, ‘Let’s visit Barnes & Noble, let’s go to the Hallmark store, Sears.’”

Thompson said events at the civic center are important to the area’s economy year-round, but the week of the basketball tournaments “is one week that is a very significant one.”

The tournaments also obviously have a major impact on the civic center’s finances.

Colwill said the week of the tournaments brings in between 35 and 38 percent of the facility’s concessions sales for the entire year. The center annually sells between $260,000 and $270,000 worth of hot dogs, sodas and other concessions in a year, and $100,000 of that comes during tourney time.

All the activity on the basketball court makes it a relatively slow week for the rest of the civic center, which is set up to host conferences and other meetings in several outlying rooms. Colwill said there were very few meetings scheduled during the week.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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