Pat Moore of Lewiston helps his son, Teddy, learn to skate Wednesday morning at the Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn during one of several public skating events that take place every week. The schedule can be found at norwaysavingsbankarena.com Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — A year after the city restructured staff in order to expand its recreation and sports tourism efforts, city officials say there is evidence it’s working.

At Norway Savings Bank Arena, considered the central piece of the effort, a yearslong struggle to break even is also showing signs of reversing.

According to Marc Gosselin, who returned to Auburn in 2018 to lead the new Recreation and Sports Tourism department, ice use at the arena is up 5% from this point last year. More teams and programs are booking ice time, and Gosselin has already reached this year’s goal for corporate partnerships — six months early.

Meanwhile, the city announced a new event this week for 2020, the Maine Golf Show, which adds to a growing number of “non-hockey” events hosted by the arena. The new DJ Skate Nights, held every Friday, are also popular.

“There’s a lot of activity taking place, and there’s a lot of energy around it,” said City Manager Peter Crichton this week. “I really am very encouraged by the way people are working together and the team that we have.”

Ever since the dual-surface ice arena opened in 2013, elected officials have struggled with how to fund and support it. The arena, which is costly to operate and maintain, has typically lost money each year, but is relied upon by a large number of local sports teams.

With the 2018 addition of the Twin City Thunder, a U.S. Premiere Hockey League team, that number has grown.

In fiscal 2017-18, the arena ran at a loss of $394,000. According to the fiscal 2019-20 budget, the arena was slated to take in roughly $413,000 in revenue this year, and have an operating budget of about $718,000. When the budget was approved, officials said they planned for revenue to increase, helping the arena to essentially break even.

So far this year, the arena has taken in $557,637, with total operating expenses of $373,982, giving the city a net gain of $183,655 as of Jan. 14.

However, the city has also had an annual lease payment of $507,000, until it purchased the arena from developer George Schott this past summer.

As the city placed the arena, the Ingersoll Turf Facility and Recreation under one department, it restructured its finances. Annual payments on a $7 million bond to purchase the building will be less than the previous lease and will save the city $2.5 million, officials have said.

According to Crichton, the city still has $1,213,747 in debt on the arena, but that figure is down from $1,397,402 in July. As part of the restructuring, the city separated the arena debt from its operational expenses, which Crichton said allows officials to see whether it is breaking even. He said it was not an attempt to “ignore what the debt service is.”

Jacob Anderson of Auburn gets some help from a chair and his mother, Britny, on Wednesday morning at the Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn during one of several public skating events that take place every week. The schedule can be found at norwaysavingsbankarena.com Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

When officials discussed the restructuring during budget deliberations last year, some councilors were concerned the new department could mask the financial situations of the two facilities.

Crichton said the “business-like approach” the city has taken is working.

Gosselin returned to Auburn after working in corporate partnerships for the Columbus Blue Jackets, a National Hockey League team.

He said this week that by placing everything under one umbrella it has “increased efficiency and allows us to focus on growing programs, explore larger projects and sport tourism initiatives.”

“We fully understand what is needed to make our facilities successful and utilize combined resources to ensure that success,” he said. “We are placing an emphasis on marketing the new department to our user groups and the community as a whole.”

According to Gosselin, the arena took in $191,000 in corporate sponsorships in fiscal 2019. This year, that figure has seen 15% growth.

While the effort has centered on growing revenue at Norway Savings Bank Arena, Gosselin said results can also be seen in new programs, new facilities like the Auburn Senior Community Center and new events like New Year’s Auburn.

Last year, the arena hosted a country music concert that was deemed a success as well as a template for further activity that Gosselin and his crew could replicate.

Crichton said the Ingersoll Turf Facility is now “maxed out,” meaning the city now has to turn people away due to full schedules.

While the overall goal has been dubbed “sports tourism,” Mayor Jason Levesque said Monday that he’s not “sold” on the term. He said the city’s effort to bring in more people for sporting events, recreation and other entertainment amounts to a “culture shift.”

The city also works closely with Lost Valley to promote regional events.

“It’s really sports, and arts and entertainment,” he said. “Sports tourism is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but it’s really business based around a culture of sport within our city,” he said. “People coming to Auburn for either day trips or a weekend because of sports is growing.”

Crichton said the city has a goal of hosting a major regional or state sports tournament or event at the arena by 2022.

Auburn will host the board of directors for the National Collegiate Roller Hockey National Championship in June, which will determine which year the city will host the event, Gosselin said.

While it’s not sports-centric, Levesque said New Year’s Auburn is a prime example of bringing new people into the city. The event is largely put on by the Recreation and Sports Tourism department, and brings hundreds of people to the downtown. Levesque said the city is still trying to get numbers on how many hotel rooms were booked and where people traveled from.

Prior to restructuring the department, the city hired an outside firm to conduct a study, which concluded that the city should staff its own tourism office.

Representatives from the Huddle Up Group, which conducted the study, told the City Council in early 2018 that developing Auburn’s “tourism infrastructure” should be the first goal.

While the recreation and sports tourism department’s budget increased by about 16% this year, the city has largely eased into the study’s recommendations.

The Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn. City officials say ice usage is up 5% from a year ago. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

During budget discussions in June, the department requested $160,000 for a professional stage that could be used for concerts and other events. The department was given $50,000.

According to Levesque, the money has been used to rent a portable stage that has since been used for the “Blues & Brews” event, the city’s inauguration and New Year’s Auburn.

He said while the arena stage would likely have a “solid return on investment,” the cheaper, portable unit “allowed us to really see what we’re getting ourselves into.”

Levesque argues the value of Norway Savings Bank Arena lies in the service it provides the community and the activity it brings to local businesses. He doesn’t expect the ice arena to break even. After all, he said, many municipal rinks, golf courses and other recreation struggle to break even.

“It’s hard for us to measure what the secondary economic benefit is, other than to look at all the other stores and the hotel that are around there that are very busy,” he said. “I’d bet money that if that arena wasn’t there, half those businesses wouldn’t be there either.”

He added that he believes the residents of Auburn “recognize that strategic investments in these recreational assets will pay off, either directly or indirectly through an increase in residents or tax base.”

Levesque said he’s also excited for the growth in “non-hockey” events, such as the just-announced Maine Golf Show, scheduled for the weekend of March 28. Also slated for April is the 16th annual Vacationland RV & Camping Show.

Gosselin has a long list of reasons to be optimistic about the arena — everything from the number of birthday parties it’s hosting to the number of teams looking for ice time.

The arena has already reserved six weeks worth of ice time for this summer.

Levesque said going forward, the city needs to develop a marketing strategy to coincide with its sports tourism efforts. He said whether that’s a new marketing department or outsourcing is yet to be determined, but that he expects the council to have discussions this spring for next year’s budget.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.