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Hotel Business in Maine's Capital City, Augusta, Gaining Momentum

By Elizabeth Comeau, Kennebec Journal, Augusta, MaineMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Nov. 27, 2006 - AUGUSTA -- With plans in the works for a new hotel in north Augusta and several local hotels undergoing renovation, experts say the hospitality business in and around Maine's capital city may be gaining momentum.

But it's unclear whether there has been true, increased demand for rooms or if local hotels are simply competing for the same or fewer customers by enticing them with new buildings and recently renovated facilities.

While Peter Thompson, president and chief executive officer of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, won't call it a resurgence, he said there has been growth in the hotel market.

"According to the state, the Augusta market lodging revenues in 2000 were 9.6 million. In 2005, they were 11.4 million," Thompson said.

"That's pretty good growth. Some of that is inflation, but some is growth. It's not insignificant." Plans for a new Marriott-Fairfield Inn & Suites on Anthony Avenue -- on a vacant parcel of land across from the Great Wall Buffet on Anthony Avenue -- would add to the mix of hotels available locally.

Tim Armstrong, general manager of the EconoLodge Inn & Suites and a member of the Maine Course Hospitality group, said the Marriott-Fairfield will bring another brand name to the area.

"One thought was that it would be good, because it's a Marriott brand and there isn't one between Bangor and Brunswick," Armstrong said.

"It was also just a good fit for the Waterville and Augusta markets." Spokespersons for the Maine Course Hospitality Group of Freeport, which will operate the hotel, said there is no timeline for construction. However, the group has applied for a building permit with the city's code enforcement bureau.

City Planner Matthew Nazar said the hotel is expected to be about three stories tall with 83 units.

Once the hotel is finished, it will join a half-dozen other hotels or motels close to Interstate 95 in Augusta.

The top five hotels in the area by their number of units are:

--EconoLodge, 127 units;

--The Senator Inn (Best Western), 125;

--Holiday Inn, 102;

--Comfort Inn, 99;

--Motel 6, 69.

However, that mix will change when the Marriott-Fairfield Inn arrives and the renovation of America's Best Inn on Whitten Road and its conversion to a Quality Inn & Suites is complete.

Thompson said the addition of another hotel is good news for both the hospitality business and for the city.

"It reflects a number of things," Thompson said. "It means the area is seeing more growth, more jobs and it's more of a tax base for the city."

Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association, said some of the hospitality activity may be based on projected growth in the region.

"I think that some people are anticipating growth in the retail industry in Augusta because the community is about to take off," Dugal said.

However, Dugal warned that occupancy has been dropping in Augusta. He believes there's an attempt to supplant other hotels' market shares by upgrading, renovating or bringing in a new brand name.

"Someone staying at an EconoLodge or Motel 6 may upgrade," Dugal said. "If there's a recognizable brand in Augusta, they would be more inclined to stay there." Regardless of where they are staying, Michael Duguay, city development director, said at least people have been spending more time in Augusta and Waterville areas the past seven years.

"Augusta is becoming much more well known as a gateway than before," Duguay said. "I'm not sure if people are just coming up 95 and crossing over US 1 or what, but coupled with the growth in the Belgrade Lakes area there are a lot of activities going on," he said.

"We appear to be at the right place at the right time." For some time, Duguay said, there has been a fair amount of discussion concerning a lack of hotel rooms in the area. When conferences or concerts come to central Maine, there's simply been "no room at the inn." "Now that we have more people coming in, those facilities can sustain their businesses ... while it may not be that 100 percent of the rooms are filled 100 percent of the time, there is that pent up demand in the market," Duguay said.

"As more people are getting frustrated with the congestion in the southern part of the state, they're beginning to see that it's not too far of a drive to come to Augusta."

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To see more of the Kennebec Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.kjonline.com.

Copyright (c) 2006, Kennebec Journal, Augusta, Maine

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