Jamie Eldridge used to be able to predict when the flood of customers from the state wrestling tournament would begin arriving at Applebee's.
"You could keep an eye out the window and watch for a large exodus," said the general manager of the restaurant that overlooks MetraPark.
With a new thoroughfare next to the venue, that may be a little harder forecast to make this year, he noted, but he does know the restaurant staff will be busy.
"You can predict that it's going to be busy, but you can't plan when," he said.
Although it's one of the closest restaurants to Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, Applebee's won't be the only business benefiting from the return of the state wrestling tournament to Billings after a year away. The tourney was farmed out to three other towns last year while Rimrock Auto Arena was repaired after the Father's Day tornado in 2010.
Nearby, the Subway sandwich shop was stocking its walk-in coolers. Nic Eames, the shop's director of operations, said the company's two locations in the Heights will see a 25 percent increase over the weekend. Across the street, the Boothill Inn and Suites was fully booked for the weekend. Retail stores, too, are likely to see rural shoppers who have errands to run while in the city.
"The wrestling tournament is obviously a citywide event," said Shelli Mann, manager of the Boothill Inn. "It not only fills the hotels, it fills the restaurants, and I see a lot of moms coming in with shopping bags from the mall."
"From our standpoint, it's so valuable to the community that we put $10,000 to it and another $6,000 for hospitality services for the coaches and referees," said John Brewer, president of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We roll out the red carpet because this is a huge event," he said. "If this were to be lost, it would be nearly impossible to replace."
The chamber's contribution comes from the Billings Improvement District, which gets $1 from each hotel room stay throughout the year.
Considering the tournament's large influx of people — about 700 athletes and roughly 6,000 to 8,000 family members, coaches, staff members and fans — it's hard to believe that MetraPark will be lucky to break even.
"Monetarily, it's not the most lucrative thing we do," said marketing director Sandra Hawke. But it's definitely part of MetraPark's mission to benefit the community, she added.
And for Hawke, it goes even deeper than that. When the tourney gets under way at 9:40 a.m. Friday with the parade of athletes — when the qualifying wrestlers from across the state march around the arena with their teammates — she is "thrilled to death."
"We know it's something they remember for a lifetime," she said, unlike possibly more lucrative but less memorable concerts.
Hawke has been present to watch all 22 of the grand entries and still feels "like a country girl" each time.
"There's a new kid every year that gets to walk in," she said. "It's a capstone to a lot of effort."
A lot of effort goes on behind the scenes at the arena, as well. Brian Michelotti, of the Montana High School Association, said the organization is "very, very fortunate to have a tremendous amount of volunteers" and people with the institutional knowledge to do the scoring, setup and takedown.
"They do an outstanding job," he said.
Of course, he said, it makes his job easier to have the tournament all in one place again, instead of farmed out to separate communities as the tournament was last year. But he noted that everyone — from the coaches to the participants — also enjoys having all of the schools under one roof to watch a high school sporting event unlike any other in the state. The culmination comes at 4 p.m. Saturday, when the Class AA, A and B-C athletes battle for championships on three spotlighted mats.
"As far as true high school athletic events, there wouldn't be anything else in Montana that approaches this," Michelotti said.