U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston speaks Monday afternoon to attendees at the “Tourism 101” forum held at Central Maine Community College in Auburn. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

AUBURN — Visitors in 2017 spent $670 million in the Lakes and Mountains tourism region, which includes the Twin Cities.

The message Monday: Let’s not stop there.

The Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce hosted the first of three tourism forums Monday at Central Maine Community College that dove into visitor statistics, took quick stock of the area and offered advice.

“Remember to look at your product or your region through the lens of a visitor,” said Dina Jackson, economic development specialist/manager at the Maine’s Lakes & Mountains Tourism Council. “My house never looks more broken down than when I have a visitor coming and I think: ‘Oh! I’ve got to fix that light switch. I could use a little paint here.’ We need to do that, too.”

Visitor spending in 2017 was up 8.1% from 2016, she said, according to figures from the Maine Office of Tourism’s annual report.

The number of visitors in that span increased 11.1%, to an estimated 4.8 million.

Regional numbers for 2018 are still being tallied, but statewide the number of first-time visitors was up 21.1%, she said.

“That’s huge, that’s wonderful,” Jackson said. “Maybe they start out in the more well-known places, the lobster and lighthouse mentality, but they’re always looking for something new and different. If we’re poised and we’re ready and we’re welcoming, then of course they’ll start to look at our area as well.”

She encouraged businesses to have shareable social media content and to include their company on a free listing on the Maine Office of Tourism’s website.

Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, said downtown investment has led the economic development charge in cities such as Bangor and Waterville.

“Building out downtown has the biggest potential for Lewiston or Auburn,” he said, adding, “I think it’s important to begin to think about hospitality as the front end of economic development, and encouraging hotels and restaurants will encourage traditional investment.”

The trade group recently started a new apprenticeship program hoping to fill more jobs in the industry, overseen by former gubernatorial candidate Terry Hayes. It has 15 companies signed up and nine apprentices placed so far, the first at the Hilton Garden Inn Auburn Riverwatch.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston, who helped kick off the forum, said he was happy to see the chamber getting involved in a tourism initiative.

He said tourism is not a silver bullet on its own, but part of the mix.

Golden could envision Lewiston’s canals someday being a draw for ice skating or water sports.

“That’s the kind of thing that causes some excitement about a community,” he said. “If you lived in Portland, you might say, ‘Let’s take that trip up to Lewiston. Once you start getting people here for some kind of experience like that, they get to see the beauty of the place, and that’s when we start stealing people from Portland and they start calling Lewiston home.’

Added Golden: “It’s a long game. It doesn’t come easily.”

Golden said he has encouraged his parents to expand the offerings at their Leeds golf course to attract more visitors, adding disc golf or footgolf.

“Don’t take it from me,” he joked. “My parents haven’t followed my advice.”

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