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Fans flock to watch their favorites skate

Event draws a healthy legion of tourists with money to spend

If the 2005 State Farm U.S. Figure Skating Championships are about Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen Ñ who will win the title? Ñ then they're also about Gwen Learned, one of the legion of skating fans to follow the event to the Rose City.

Learned, a retired nurse who lives in the Los Angeles area, has tickets for every session of the seven-day event, which ends Sunday.

She's been to one other national championship, along with world championships in Calgary, Alberta, and Minneapolis, 'and a couple of Skate Americas.'

At the events, she's gotten to know skaters and their families, coaches and other fans. 'They're just genuinely nice people,' she says.

With the Blazers and the Winter Hawks on the road, the Rose Quarter is working well as a venue Ñ partly because skating ice is available at both Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Garden. Some skaters also are practicing at the nearby Lloyd Center ice rink.

In St. Louis, site of the 2006 U.S. championships, the secondary arena is in St. Charles, Mo., approximately 25 miles west of downtown St. Louis.

'Having the visitors in town Ñ participants, media, spectators Ñ it's really very good,' says Joe D'Alessandro, president and chief executive of the Portland Oregon Visitors Association. 'Being sold out in the middle of January in Portland is a very good thing. We're not always necessarily looked upon as a January destination.'

Although an announcement that a city will host the U.S. championships often is accompanied by a prediction that it will bring $30 million to the host city, D'Alessandro says the event's direct impact to Portland's hospitality industry will be $8 million to $10 million.

The Rose Garden concourse has been transformed into a marketplace, with vendors selling skating-themed clothing, skating boots and blades Ñ as well as promoting future U.S. championships in St. Louis and Spokane (where the event will be held in 2007). Tickets to next year's world championships in Calgary also are for sale.

At a booth piled with clothing, luggage and other items decorated with the U.S. Figure Skating Association logo, Portlander Pat Moore spent $66 on gifts. Moore, who also bought tickets to all the events, learned to skate as an adult. He is a member of the Portland Hookey skating club, which uses the Lloyd Center rink.

Tickets for Friday, Saturday and Sunday still are available, although Mike Rosenberg, the managing director of the Portland championships, predicted a sellout of tickets to the ladies championship event Ñ featuring Cohen and Kwan.

Rosenberg says the championships 'very well might' set an attendance record; 100,000 tickets have been sold, and he expects the number to rise before the 2 p.m. Sunday finale, the Chevy Skating Spectacular.

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