PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Light fades as the sun sets on the Nordic Heritage Center, but work continues on the site.
Front-end loaders, bulldozers and trail groomers trundle across mountains of snow, pushing it into place, shaping it, setting the white stage for the world-class sporting event that’s a week away.
The first of two International Biathlon Union World Cup events in Maine will be held here beginning Feb. 4, followed by the second competition starting in Fort Kent on Feb. 10.
According to the state Department of Economic and Community Development, combined, they represent the largest event ever held in Maine. Organizers estimate the two events will have an economic impact of $10 million to the region.
Some of that impact is obvious. There will be about 700 Europeans — including 250 athletes from 30 countries, their coaches and support staff, spectators and foreign media — in Aroostook County for two weeks for the events. They’ll be staying in area lodging, eating at local restaurants, and buying at local stores. The Presque Isle competition is expected to draw at least 15,000 spectators, the Fort Kent event expects 20,000 watching at the 10th Mountain Ski Center. Likewise, those people will be spending money in the communities.
“What I’m hoping is it gives us a good month and helps to tide us over this dead period that seems to hit every year. January is always dead; February is not a lot better,” said Jim Stacey, owner of the Crow’s Nest, a massive restaurant and event center a few miles from the Nordic center in Presque Isle. “An event like this brings more people to town; I suspect we’ll do more volume and we can keep the lights on, keep the heat going.”
The benefits go beyond the tourism sector. Those earthmovers — snowmovers, currently — working on the course were all run by local contractors. A bizarre paucity of snow in northern Maine means event organizers in both towns have had to pay for snow-making off-site, and for the white gold to be trucked in. Organizers in Presque Isle figure they’re spending about $30,000 on that aspect of preparation alone.
Over the last week, dump trucks delivered roughly 500 truckloads of snow to the Nordic center.
“This time of year, there’s very little cash flow. Anytime you turn some over, it helps,” said Mike Martin, owner of Earthworks, a Presque Isle contractor. “Three weeks of work in the middle of winter when you’re not working — that’s a shot in the arm.”
Even less tangible is how these events may affect northern Maine’s economy down the road.
The World Cup Biathlon, a competition combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, is as popular as soccer’s World Cup in Northern Europe. It’s expected the Maine events, sponsored by the German energy company E.ON, will draw up to 120 million viewers on European television.
Economic development officials and event organizers hope to leverage that global showcase to draw more people to Aroostook year-round.
“It’s an uphill battle in these rural areas, but Aroostook has a lot going for it,” said Marilynne Mann, interim director of the Center for Tourism Research and Outreach at the University of Maine. “The way the Maine Winter Sports Center is creating energy and bringing an international focus to The County is different from any other place in the state.”
Geographically, Aroostook is Maine’s biggest county, but it’s sparsely populated, with a population of about 71,500 people. Typical of the state’s more rural counties, Aroostook is economically challenged. It had an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent in December, compared with the state average of 7.3 percent. The median household income for The County was $36,100 in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly $10,300 less than the state average.
The region normally boasts a relatively robust winter tourism industry, anchored by extensive snowmobile trails and a normally heavy snowfall. This winter has seen less snowfall in The County than normal, noted Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center, a Libra Foundation-supported group that has invested more than $30 million in northern Maine’s winter sport infrastructure. This year, adding to the imbalance, southern Maine, the Mid-Atlantic and western New England regions have received more snow than northern Maine.
“The people who would normally travel great distances to get to Aroostook County to travel on 2,300 miles of snowmobile trail haven’t needed to. That hurt,” said Shepard.
Hotels and motels that are normally full up with snowmobilers from away have plenty of vacancy. The biathlon will help mitigate that, said Adam Cyr, general manager of the Hampton Inn in Presque Isle.
The inn is new, having opened in August 2009. Cyr, a Caribou native, came back to The County to run it after managing hotels in Rhode Island and Portland. Both the hotel and the Crow’s Nest are adjacent to snowmobile trails, and expect commerce from them during a good season.
In the meantime, said Cyr, the biathlon “is the boost we need — the boost The County needs.”
The 93-room inn will be full for an entire week and weekend, he said, with several biathlon teams, event VIPs and members of the Winter Sports Center staying there. He employs about 35 people at the inn, said Cyr, and business has slowed recently.
“I’m excited to give them more hours,” said Cyr. “And they’re excited to get them.”
Nearby, at the Crow’s Nest, Stacey detailed some of the ways his business would be participating in the biathlon. The 26,000-square-foot Crow’s Nest is licensed to handle just over 1,000 people, said Stacey, who retired five years ago as president and chief operating officer of ZF Lemforder’s North American operations.
The Crow’s Nest will host a dinner Friday evening for VIPs and biathlon executives, said Stacey. Staff will provide a line service at the VIP tent on Friday and Sunday, as well. The Nest will hold a dance party Saturday night for Presque Isle to celebrate the fact that the event is here. On Sunday, it will hold a massive Super Bowl party for the teams, volunteers, trainers and other staffers, expected at up to 800 people.
There’s a real trickle effect to the impact, said Stacey. For example: For the Super Bowl party, the Crow’s Nest will make some money. But it’s also renting a big TV and a projector from the local Radio Shack to supplement the equipment it has to show the game.
Some of this will mean business for Stacey; other events are basically donations to the event. On Friday, the Nest will provide space for about 750 schoolchildren attending the event to warm up and eat brown-bag lunches.
“You need to be part of the community, part of what’s going on, you’ve got to make contributions,” said Stacey. “We’ve chosen to do that. That’s goodwill, and it does go a ways. If you combine that with good food and service, you’re looked at like a good, respectable business, and people want to be there.”
That mixture of donation and commerce was a common theme among all sorts of businesses doing work with the biathlon. The biathlons are largely dependent on volunteers, from organization to housing to event management. Businesses that make money in one area recognize the need to give a bit to make the events successful.
In Fort Kent, Quigley’s Building Supply has benefited in the months leading up to the biathlon, said Justin Dubois, manager.
“Our economic impact stretches out over the preparation and bringing the event to us,” said Dubois.
The company sold much of the building materials needed to improve the 10th Mountain for the event, he said. There are even some investors who have bought old houses to rent out, and they refurbished the buildings with material from Quigley’s.
But Quigley’s also provided its forklift to organizers to do work at the 10th, said Dubois. And the hardware store might as well close during the actual event, he said, there’s so little commerce for his business. But they’ll stay open, he said, allowing the public to use the restrooms. And Quigley’s staff is in charge of one of the parking lots that will be used for the event — another way of helping out.
Both events have put a lot of tradesmen to work. In Presque Isle, that’s meant electricians to run service for camera crews, plumbers to beef up septic systems and insulate pipes, technicians to boost Internet capabilities and “carpenters, carpenters, carpenters … and more carpenters,” said Jane Towle, who’s handling media rela-tions for the organizing committee. “What we’ve had to build out there is incredible for infrastructure.”
Rich Nadeau, owner of A&L Construction in Presque Isle, has been doing a lot of that work. He’s worked on laying concrete foundations for the shooting range, raising massive platforms for camera crews, building stairs, scoreboard platforms and other needed improvements.
“The timing was good. We were in a slow period, and it filled in,” said Nadeau. “It helped us immensely.”
Nadeau had to lay off two of his six employees because work has slowed. But the biathlon work has helped him keep the other four employed, he said. He’s also donated the use of some big equipment, such as a boom lift and a forklift, to do work at the center, he said.
And the benefit of the work goes beyond financial, said Nadeau.
“You like working for something like that, it benefits a lot of people — the community as a whole and the people coming in here,” said Nadeau.
His sentiment was echoed by Gil Gagnon, owner of Soucy’s Electric in Forth Kent, which has been doing much of the electrical work at the 10th Mountain. The work has kept his company busy during a traditionally slow time of year, he said. But he recognizes that he’s working on projects that will allow Fort Kent to be high-lighted worldwide, and will possibly help the community prosper in the future.
“You do feel a sense of pride. You can feel the excitement in the area, even before the event,” said Gagnon. “With all the workers, the camaraderie’s great — it’s a sense of family.”
The combined events have a budget of $2 million, Shepherd said, funded through sponsors, television rights, admission fees and other sources. The first World Cup Biathlon competition in Maine was held in Fort Kent in 2004. In 2006, a junior biathlon event was held in Presque Isle.
The work done on those events has provided a foundation for the 2010 effort. And they’ve also given businesses in The County a sense of what to expect, with an eye toward leveraging the exposure.
Walt Elish, president and CEO of the Aroostook Partnership for Progress, noted that the Aroostook Centre Mall saw increased sales revenues of about $1.2 million in 2006 during the week of the junior championships. After the next week’s events, economic development experts in northern Maine want to carefully study the im-pact, to track benefits, said Towle.
Nancy Thibodeau, event director for the Fort Kent competition, noted that the secondary spending from the event is less apparent. For example, a tradesman who makes some unexpected money from work on the event may decided to spend several hundred dollars on a new washing machine from an area business.
The region’s private sector wasn’t really prepared to capitalize fully on the past events, said Shepard. Few companies had websites, he said, and those that did weren’t focused on supporting an international clientele. The Libra Foundation has given the center a $150,000 grant to develop a European tourism strategy for northern Maine, said Shepard, and the group has developed a new website as part of that effort, at www.discovernorthernmaine.com.
It highlights year-round activities, from ATV riding to camping to hiking, hunting, fishing and others, he said. It also points out the fact that Northern Maine is really in the heart of Maritime Canada, with attractions such as whale watching a mere hour and a half away, in the St. Lawrence.
Events like the biathlons, such as the CanAm Sled Dog Race, are pieces of the economic puzzle for northern Maine, suggested Thibodeau. The days are passing where a single, concentrated economic engine drives a community, like a paper mill or manufacturing plant. Those enterprises still exist but must be supplemented with numerous other businesses.
The events give communities a chance to highlight their offerings to potential new residents, businesses and vacationers, said Thibodeau.
“You’ve come here, you’ve experienced our culture, now we invite you back,” said Thibodeau. “Come back and enjoy it again.”