BANGOR, Maine — For LeRay Higgins and her husband, Kevin, the annual high school basketball tournament in Bangor is a bright spot in the long Aroostook County winter.
“It’s a County tradition to come down for the games,” she said Saturday. “We make a weekend of it.” The couple drove from Presque Isle on Friday with their two daughters, Libby, 5, and Molly, 5 months. They planned to stay two nights at the new Hilton Garden Hotel near the Bangor Mall. All their meals would be eaten at area restaurants, and they planned to visit the mall stores.
“Shopping is definitely part of the weekend fun,” said LeRay Higgins, who is 33, a Presque Isle native and a teacher at Presque Isle High School.
The Higgins family represents a welcome seasonal presence in the Bangor area — the thousands of players, friends, families and fans who travel here from all directions during the week of February vacation to be part of the basketball playoffs at the Bangor Auditorium.
The midwinter basketball tournament has been a fixture in Bangor for five decades, drawing families from throughout the northern half of the state. Mike Dyer, executive director of the auditorium and civic center, said not as many people stay overnight in Bangor as they did years ago. But the event still packs an economic punch.
“Anything that brings people into Bangor from outside the area at a time when you might not see that many has got to be good for the city,” he said.
On Sunday, the Bangor Mall area was congested with traffic. Parking spots were at a premium and stores were teeming with browsers and buyers. Dean Sherwood, general manager of Borders, said tournament season is always good for business.
“We’re impacted by both the basketball tournament and school vacation,” he said. A survey of customer ZIP codes indicates that many have come quite a distance to spend their money here.
“We love it when it happens,” Sherwood said.
At the Texas Roadhouse on Stillwater Avenue, service manager Michelle Page said the place has been packed.
“We expect a huge amount of business all this week,” she said. The restaurant offers a 10 percent discount to players staying in area hotels, she said, and parties of 30 and 40 people are not uncommon during the tournament.
Downtown businesses also were enjoying a surge. Amanda Boody, a bartender at the Sea Dog restaurant on Front Street, said both lunch and dinner crowds were significantly larger than usual over the weekend. Boody, who has worked at the Sea Dog for three years, said the tournament provides a reliable uptick in hungry customers.
“All year, we kind of get revved up for the tournament,” she said.
Across Main Street from all the action at the auditorium, the hotel at Hollywood Slots also reported “a nice little spike in business,” according to front desk supervisor Aubri St. Pierre.
“We’re just about sold out for the rest of this week,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of basketball players. It’s just the luck of the draw for us, being across the street from the civic center.”
The 2010 Eastern Maine Basketball Tournament, hosted by the Maine Principals’ Association, is scheduled to run through Friday, Feb. 26.