FORT KENT, Maine — Just when it looked like COVID-19 would keep northern Maine’s economy stagnant, a national athletic event is filling hotels and giving other businesses hope for a good year.
The Fort Kent Outdoor Center will host the Eastern Regional Biathlon Cup No. 3 from Jan. 20 through Jan. 25. The event will draw New England competitors ranging in age from 10 to 70, and National Guard biathletes from around the United States who will participate in an All Guard Training Camp at the center.
The event comes at a time when the local economy can use a boost after seeing two years of pandemic-related losses and adaptations that have caused some businesses to close and others to struggle to stay open. It’s one of four major events on the New England biathlon circuit and will draw 60-70 athletes, along with many of their family members, to the area.
Somewhere around 40 National Guard athletes and 25-30 members of the general public are expected to participate in the biathlon, and that number would be even higher — probably double — were it not for border crossing regulations, Fort Kent Outdoor Center President Carl Theriault said.
“It’s the biggest event we’ve had in the last four or five years,” Theriault said.
In response to the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19, the Canadian government in December reinstated the requirement for a pre-arrival negative PCR test result for all Canadian travelers re-entering the country after short trips of less than 72 hours.
Despite a lack of international participants, the biathlon is expected to have a positive impact on the local service industry, including motels, restaurants and gas stations.
“We have people who are coming to this area to compete this month who would never have known about Fort Kent or the St. John Valley otherwise,” said Greater Fort Kent Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Dona Saucier. “In tourism dollars alone, this is always a big boost to the area, and very much needed as we seem to be having a late start in the snowmobiling sector this year.”
Northern Door Inn in Fort Kent has all rooms booked out and Overlook Motel in nearby Eagle Lake, located about 15 miles south of Fort Kent, has an uptick in reservations during the biathlon.
“We’re not full, but it is a nice piece of business for sure,” Overlook Motel owner Phillip Leboeuf said. “Snowmobiling conditions at this time are not the best, but traffic is up because of pent up demand I would say.”
He said the motel is busy with snowmobilers when snow conditions are good, as well as skiers and ice fishermen. Although business is rebounding, the first year of COVID-19 was difficult.
As well as being president of the Fort Kent Outdoor Center, Theriault is also on the board of the downhill ski resort Lonesome Pine Trails in Fort Kent, and said both facilities have sold a record number of season passes this year.
“I would say that our revenues the last two years are up 20 percent at the Outdoor Center and at Lonesome Pines it’s probably more like 40-50 percent,” Theriault said. “Outside skiing, that’s about as healthy a place as you can be.”
Theriault said he would like to see the trend toward outdoor recreation continue long after COVID-19 is gone.