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Curling championship expected to draw thousands to North Bay

Memorial Gardens arena in North Bay will host the Ford Women’s Curling Championship March 17-25.

Thousands are expected to descend on North Bay – with millions more watching through their television screens – when the Ford World Women’s Curling Championship comes to town March 17-25.

Thirteen women’s teams from around the globe will compete at the city’s Memorial Gardens arena for the world curling title during the nine-day event, including several that are currently competing at the 2018 winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

It’s undeniably a coup for the Northern Ontario city of 51,000, which has never before hosted a sports tourism event of this size, said Dave Bennett, vice-chair of special events at the North Bay Granite Club, which is co-hosting the event with the City of North Bay.

“There have only been two previous world curling championships in the whole province of Ontario before – one in Hamilton and one in Toronto,” Bennett said. “So, this is the largest curling event, certainly in Northern Ontario, and of course for the City of North Bay, that’s ever been held.”

Between 80,000 and 90,000 people – athletes, coaches, dignitaries, fans, volunteers, media – are expected in the city, nearly doubling its population. And all those people will need accommodations, food, transportation, and entertainment, injecting millions of dollars into the economy.

“I would think that, quite realistically, we're looking at an infusion to the economy of, conservatively, $12 million,” Bennett said. That’s an average of $1.3 million per day over the course of the nine-day event.

Getting to this point has been a long process. It dates back to 2013, when the Granite Club hosted the Canadian National Mixed Curling Championship.

At that time, refurbishment work on Memorial Gardens was still in progress, but representatives from Curling Canada were impressed by the venue, suggesting it would be ideal for hosting a bigger event.

Fast forward three years, and that suggestion wasn’t forgotten. Curling Canada asked the club to bid on the women’s championship, the City of North Bay came on as a partner, and the bid was successful.

But winning the bid was the easy part. The logistics behind putting on an event of this size are challenging. First, Bennett said, organizers had to work out an agreement with the city’s OHL hockey team, the North Bay Battalion, which uses Memorial Gardens as its home ice.

Next, they had to recruit close to 400 volunteers to help coordinate and run the event. Bennett said they met that quota, and 395 volunteers from across Canada have signed up to assist.

Organizers also accessed some funding from the Ontario Sport Hosting Program and FedNor to assist in hosting the event and undertake some upgrades to the curling club. It also helped that early ticket sales were strong, Bennett said.

“We did a massive pre-event sales campaign to prove to Curling Canada and the World Curling Federation that we could indeed host this, and we sold 650 full event passes before our bid was put to bed in June of 2016,” he said. “That number, of course, has just increased since, so we're very, very pleased with how everything came through there.”

By early February, Bennett said, the event was about 75 to 80 per cent sold out, and he expected a spike in activity on Feb. 2 when general tickets were to go on sale, and another boost following the Scotties Championship of Hearts on Feb. 4.

Bennett said support coming in from organizations in the city and across Northern Ontario has been instrumental to helping them put on a great event. He’s confident that it won’t be the last.

“I think that once our venues are showcased, we’ll have the opportunity for bidding for other events down the road,” Bennett said. “I have no doubt in my mind that we will put on a great, great show, and that the World Curling Federation and Curling Canada will look at us in a very favourable light for other events down the road.”

He noted that the city plans to distribute surveys to attendees about their experience in North Bay to better gauge what people liked about the city and whether they’ll be back, giving the city “a real good feel for what could happen down the road as far as tourism goes.”

The city certainly couldn’t ask for a better opportunity, or a more invaluable marketing campaign: it’s expected 175 million viewers will be tuning in to the television broadcast over the course of the event.

“Our North Bay logo’s right on the ice,” Bennett said. “So it’ll be great.”