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June 20, 2014

Portland 'geek culture' convention continues to grow and support the local economy

PortConMaine had humble beginnings as a "geek culture" convention, but you wouldn't know that now, with approximately 2,700 people expected to attend this weekend.

The convention for fans of gaming, anime and comic books, among other hobbies, started on Thursday at the DoubleTree Hotel in South Portland and ends on Sunday — marking the convention's 12th year of supporting the "geek economy."

Julie York, founder of PortConMaine, told Mainebiz she started the convention in 2002 after realizing there weren't any major events in New England that celebrated geek culture. So with a $200 budget raised through bookmark sales, she and 20 volunteers held the convention's first-ever event at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

The convention only attracted about 200 people, but a lot has changed since then.

With 2,700 people expected to attend this weekend, York said the convention doesn't have much more room to grow. She said PortCon has remained at the DoubleTree not just because of its support, but also because another hotel with the largest convention space in the Portland area has refused to host the convention.

"They told us it's not their kind of business," said York, who added that she did not want to name the hotel in question. "It's hard because if we're running a comics convention, we can play up the [popularity of franchises like Marvel's Iron Man], but since we're doing a geek culture event, people don't know what it is."

For the unnamed hotel, that might be a lost opportunity.

That's because the spending power of convention attendees can be fairly significant, York said. In the convention's vendor room, for instance, attendees typically drop a lot of cash on comics, T-shirts, toys and other geek paraphernalia.

In addition, York said, the convention's block of hotel rooms at the DoubleTree has been sold out for several weeks, with attendees having to seek other nearby hotels as the next best option. And since the convention is located across the road from the Maine Mall, restaurants in the area always seem to get hit hard with waves of hungry geeks.

York said she particularly remembers the first year the mall area's Chipotle Mexican Grill was open when PortCon was running. It was a total feeding frenzy. "[On the first day], they ran out of everything," she said. "They were like, 'what do we do?'"

Now restaurants like Chipotle are better prepared, York said, and other businesses in the area are even partnering with the convention, recognizing that it could help increase sales for the weekend. The Maine Mall's new Microsoft Store is holding a competition with the "Just Dance" video game on Xbox One systems. And Newbury Comics is providing a 25% discount for all products and holding its own costume contest.

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