NEWRY – Collaboration and cooperation were two key messages that came out of Tuesday’s nearly six-hour conference on outdoor recreation and tourism in the Androscoggin River valley.

It also brought together representatives from two communities that have been working unbeknownst to each other to create a canoe and bike trail to each other’s communities.

About 50 people attended the Androscoggin River Watershed Council’s annual winter conference at Sunday River Ski Resort’s Jordan Grand Hotel.

Thirteen speakers and a handful of panelists presented information on the economic importance of land and water trails, motorized sports, fishing, infrastructure, education and shoreland development to communities along the Androscoggin.

“There’s a lot of excitement here and I like that,” Bonnie Lounsbury of Auburn said. “I think, also, that they had some good speakers, especially Wende Gray, who interjected provocative comments in terms of reality.”

Gray, an outdoor tourism consultant in Bethel, spoke about the economic impact of trails on a community. She and others spoke about the importance of hotels, restaurants, and services to generate and sustain tourism.

“The more trails and opportunities we provide without infrastructure, you’re not going to see a lot of economic development,” Gray said.

Others, like Kate Williams, executive director of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, used figures, studies and PowerPoint presentations to belabor the point of collaborating with other groups and municipalities to grow economies and communities along the Androscoggin River through tourist dollars.

The NFCT is a 740-mile canoe route spanning New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine with a short foray into Quebec, Canada.

Citing a 2006 outdoors industry report, Williams said outdoor recreation in the nation annually brings in $730 billion and creates 6.5 million jobs. In New England, she said it brings in $22.9 billion annually, $2.2 billion in retail sales, and $17.7 billion in trip-related sales and creates 271,000 jobs.

“More and more people are getting out on trails with their families,” Williams said. “Research shows that if you connect your kids when they’re young, they’ll keep coming back.”

Regarding the economic impacts of nearly 90,000 visitors who last year paddled the NFCT in six study areas from New York to Rangeley, $12 million in total sales were generated and 283 jobs were created.

“The NFCT alone doesn’t make the difference. It’s linking with other partners to link resources. It’s about partnerships and linking trails into communities. … The greatest opportunity is the collaboration. We have the biggest intact ecosystem east of the Mississippi. There are so many assets here,” she said.

Jonathan Labonte of the Androscoggin Land Trust and Lewiston-Auburn Trails Alliance said success on the Androscoggin is tied to finding partners and getting municipalities to bridge rural and urban communities.

“If there is one silver lining to the Androscoggin’s long period of industrialization, it’s that we’re left with an undeveloped asset,” Labonte said. “Trails and recreation are good for businesses … and the support of local businesses and organizations is critical to moving the trails initiative forward. … Regionwide, you really have to bring partners to the table and find a way to connect them to have success on the river.”

Toward the end of the conference, connecting partners was what Rumford, Bethel and ARWC representatives began doing.

“It was nice to get everyone in the same room and talking about opportunity,” Rumford Town Manager Jim Doar said. “We’ve been working on some urban trails and would like to connect a canoe and bike trail to Bethel, and they’ve been talking about doing one to our downtown, and we wouldn’t have known this if we didn’t come here.”

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