GARDINER — Months of planning and coordination for the 2018 Great Race’s planned stop in Gardiner last week has paid an unexpected dividend: the city was the best stop among eight that participants in the antique and vintage car event made while trekking across the roof of North America.

At the race’s conclusion Sunday in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Gardiner was named Best Overnight City in the event’s specialty awards, which are announced in addition to the race winners in each of the five categories.

“People just stood up and cheered,” Peter Prescott said Thursday.

Gardiner is known for annual events like the Greater Gardiner River Festival in June, Swine and Stein in October, and the weekly outdoor concerts at Waterfront Park during summer months.

But this one-time event, known more formally as the Hemmings Motor News Great Race presented by Hagerty, drew thousands of visitors. Local officials are still measuring the impact.

Prescott, whose Maine Boyz team has taken part in the race since 2014 with Prescott’s 1948 green Ford sedan, had lobbied the Great Race organization to route the annual rally-style race of classic antique and vintage cars through Maine since his first race, which started in Ogunquit and immediately left Maine on its route to Florida.

Gardiner was one of eight end-of-day stops in the course of the 10-day race, which this year ran on rural roads from Buffalo, New York to Halifax. After stopping in Gardiner on June 26, the drivers and teams stayed overnight in Augusta before heading toward the Maine coast the following day.

Prescott said the planning group, which included the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce and Gardiner Main Street, had expected 2,000 to 3,000 spectators, but he said he was told between 6,000 and 7,000 came to the southern Kennebec County city. Onlookers came to watch the cars arrive and many stayed for the scheduled evening events, which included entertainment provided by the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center and fireworks by Central Maine Pyrotechnics at Waterfront Park, in addition to the lobster bake put on for the 125 teams and their support crews.

The race, which follows a different route every year, typically draws thousands of people to the communities where the racers stop each evening, and in Gardiner, it was no different. As part of the race, drivers and teams are required to park their cars and stay with them so that people have a chance to see the vehicles up close and talk to the teams.

Water Street was closed in the afternoon to accommodate the cars, and the street was lined with visitors before the first car arrived.

Claude Caron, who owns Gerard’s Pizza, said it was a good day for the restaurant, which he reopened last fall.

“It was nice to see the cars,” he said. “That day was pretty good.”

Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett said he spoke the Water Street business owners, who reported good results for the day. “I think it was well worth it,” Harnett said.

The cost to the city was negligible because of private donations and sponsorships, he said, all the volunteers recruited to work and because race organizers footed the bill for the additional city expenses. Whether the city would take on an event of a similar size in the future would depend on the event.

“But we showed we can do it, and we can do it at minimal expense to the taxpayer,” Harnett said.

Just as important, he said, is that the event helped the city develop a connection with the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“It shows we can do things as a region,” Harnett said.

In the post-event debriefing, Anne Davis, interim city manager, said few problems were reported — an arrest for disorderly conduct, and reports of people walking on the flower beds and dumping trash into them in Waterfront Park were just a few of them.

In Gardiner, city and economic development officials have been working for several years to figure out how to get visitors to Water Street to check out Waterfront Park, and how to get those who stop at the docks at Waterfront Park to take the short walk from the riverfront park to into downtown Gardiner.

Davis said the Great Race helped bridge that distance.

“You don’t know anecdotally if those people will ever return,” Davis said.

Prescott, who is the chief executive officer of the Gardiner-based Everett J. Prescott Inc., said he spoke to a woman who had driven up from Richmond, which is just to the south of Gardiner, who told him she’d never been to Gardiner before and had no idea what was there or that it had a waterfront park.

Other visitors, such as the drivers and their teams, came from farther away.

“We did supply the organizers and with 250 copies of the Maine Invites You brochure and 250 copies of the Maine map,” Jennifer Geiger, communications manager of Maine’s tourism office, said.

The value of getting people to Maine is clear to tourism experts and those who study the impacts of out-of-state spending in Vacationland.

“When we do a study, we do measure how many first-time versus repeat visitors we have,” Geiger said. “In 2017, our visitation was 36.7 million for the state overall.”

Of those 5.3 million came to Maine for the first time. That means the vast majority of people visiting Maine had been here before at some point.

The state breaks down the economic impact of visitor spending by region. For the Kennebec Valley, which stretches from Gardiner up through Jackman and to the Canadian border, 2.6 million visitors spent an estimated $304 million in 2016.

“We do consider bringing first-time visitors to Maine important for building the population of visitors,” Geiger said. “People do tend to be repeat visitors. They come back, but maybe not every year.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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