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March 20, 2017

Great Wolf Lodge anchors Fitchburg's tourist economy

Roughly half a million people per year visit Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg, according to general manager Henry Tessman. Most visitors live in or around New England.

Fitchburg's main tourist attraction offers a four-story tube ride called Alberta Falls, a Big Foot Pass where kids balance on “lily pads” and grip the rope above them for balance, and a Wolf Tail tube where the ground comes out from underneath you and plunges you into a 20-foot free fall and a 360 degree loop.

In order to get Great Wolf Lodge to become Fitchburg's only hotel, the city and the state offered $17 million in tax abatements and breaks. Since it opened in May 2014, the city of Fitchburg has generated nearly $2 million in hotel occupancy tax from Great Wolf, including just over $1 million in 2016 alone, according to the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce. That figure doesn't include city property taxes or state hotel or sales taxes.

“They have been a great addition to North Central Massachusetts and have had a tremendous impact in terms of jobs, tax revenue and spending in the region,” said Roy Nascimento, president and CEO of the North Central chamber.

When it opened, its estimated economic impact was $20 million, according to the chamber, and that number has likely grown.

Christina Andreoli, president of Discover Central Massachusetts, the Central Massachusetts tourism council, said Great Wolf has been for Fitchburg what Walt Disney World has been for Orlando, Fla.

“Orlando benefits from Disney being in their city, and similarly we feel that Great Wolf Lodge benefits the entire region, because it creates an attraction that visitors seek out,” Andreoli said.

A regional destination

Great Wolf Lodge is based in Madison, Wis. and has 14 resorts nationwide. Fitchburg is its only vacation spot in New England, and the site was built out of a former Holiday Inn and CoCo Key Water Resort. The resort has a wilderness theme and its own characters – Wiley the Wolf and Sammy the Squirrel, to name a few – sort of like a mini Disney resort.

The Fitchburg facility has 68,000 square feet of water park space, and a 12,000 square foot catering and event space that hosts a growing number of events every year, including weddings, corporate events, fundraisers and chamber of commerce events, according to Great Wolf. The resort also has 40,000 of indoor activity space, an arcade, and restaurants and retail stores that fit in with the Great Wolf theme.

“We're constantly looking at what would be great for the brand and great for New England,” said Henry Tessman, general manager of Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg.

Anyone can pop into one of the five restaurants or the retail space, but to go to the water park, you have to spend the night in one of Great Wolf's 406 rooms.

Tessman said the resort sees roughly half a million visitors per year. That figure has increased every year since opening, he said, and people come mostly from across New England. The company as a whole usually advertises in markets within reasonable driving distance.

“Anything within a three- to five-hour drive is where we see most of our travelers,” said Tessman.

Before the Fitchburg resort opened, Great Wolf had been interested in having an East Coast presence for a while, Tessman said, and Fitchburg was the best choice because of its central New England location.

“It was just the right location to target the amount of people they were looking to target in that geographic location,” Tessman said. “It was the perfect spot.”

North Central impact

North Central Massachusetts as a whole has seen an uptick in revenue from the tourism sector over the past 13 years, according to the region's chamber. Between 2004 and 2014, tourism's economic impact in the region increased from $14 million to $127 million.

Nascimento said hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private projects are underway, including a new soccer complex.

“It just helps continue the momentum from a tourism perspective,” he said.

Having people come to Fitchburg to visit Great Wolf will hopefully mean that they check out some of the region's other tourism destinations while they're in the area, Andreoli said.

“Ideally you'd hope that visitors would come to an attraction and destination like that and take time to explore the rest of region,” said Andreoli.

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