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Posted Feb. 20, 2009, at 6:55 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Recessionproof?

Maybe not, but by most indicators the annual high school basketball tournament at the Bangor Auditorium has seen no sign of slowdown this week, and the beneficiaries have been various city hotels, restaurants and retailers.

“Bangor has always been a pull for in-state tourism, but historically, the tournament is always one of the biggest events,” said Candy Guerrette, president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve been hearing great things all week from member hotels, restaurants, the movie theaters.”

Jon Johnson, general manager of Hollywood Slots Hotel & Raceway, said the 152-room hotel across Main Street from the auditorium was sold out both Friday and Saturday last week. He said this weekend was shaping up for a sellout as well and added that the Epic Buffet has had waits of up to an hour during the busiest times.

“Last weekend, business was up about 30 percent over the previous weekend,” Johnson said. “When we were at the temporary facility last year, we noticed a pickup in business during the tournament, but nothing compared to this year.”

Tom Palmer, who manages the Best Western Black Bear Inn in Orono and the Fireside Inn on Main Street near the auditorium, said traffic has been good, although perhaps not as strong as some previous years.

“The weekends have been solid but the weekdays have been a little soft,” he said. “But we’re very appreciative of any business that the tournament provides, and they do a great service to Bangor and the surrounding communities.”

Inside the auditorium, patrons have been spending, too. Bass Park Director Mike Dyer said concession sales have been up about 15 percent so far.

“The crowds have been great,” he said. “This is the first time in a few years that we’ve had a bunch of [Aroostook] County teams, and they always travel well.”

Last year, the astronomically high price of gas and some poor weather deterred many tournament-goers. Cumulative attendance for the Eastern Maine Class B, C and D tournaments in Bangor was down considerably from the previous year, from 39,203 in 2007 to 32,577 in 2008.

This year is actually on the same track as 2008, although it’s hard to predict because only 15 of 20 sessions had been tallied as of early Friday afternoon. So far, 23,895 paying fans have attended games this year, an average of about 1,600 per session. That means an average of 1,650 fans need to attend the final six sessions to eclipse the 2008 attendance total. It’s important to note, too, that semifinal and final games at the end of the tournament typically draw the biggest crowds.

Kerrie Tripp, executive director of the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, said most of her members have reported good business this week. She did point out that restaurants and hotels last weekend benefited from Valentine’s Day. But, Tripp said, the tournament is often a great excuse for families in some outlying areas to take advantages of the services Bangor has.

“In all this doom and gloom of the economy, the tournament is kind of a bright spot,” she said. “It’s sort of a fun, not hugely expensive winter escape.”

A couple from Woodland in Washington County who were watching their son play in the Eastern Maine Class D semifinal late Friday morning said they have been traveled back and forth to Bangor twice this week. They planned to stay Friday night if Woodland beat Bangor Christian, if they could find a room.

“It didn’t make sense to pay for a room if we don’t have to,” said the woman, politely declining to identify herself because she didn’t want to embarrass her son. “But I hope we can find a place if we need to.”

Sure enough, Woodland advanced on Friday and will play in the finals today.

The other Class D boys semifinal game featured Central Aroostook of Mars Hill and Shead of Eastport, two schools located a considerable distance from Bangor. The stands on both sides were relatively full.

Tripp said many tournament patrons call the CVB to see if rooms are available anywhere in town.

“We always work to direct people if we can,” she said. “Fortunately, we have three more hotels open than we had last year at this time.”

James Gerety, general manager of the Bangor Mall, said tournament time is like a mini-Christmas for his retailers.

“For us, there is definitely an uptick in traffic and clearly that has a real impact on sales,” he said Friday. “I don’t have traffic numbers for this week because it’s not over, but the last event we had in town [the high school cheerleading championships], we saw a boost in sales of about 20 percent.”

Johnson said the economic boost provided by the tournament really underscores the need and importance of a new arena, which has been heavily debated among city leaders in recent weeks.

“If you can get the right functions in there, it helps the entire city and beyond,” he said.

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