What happens now with arena plans?

Posted Feb. 05, 2009, at 9:14 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — City leaders are expected to pause, take a deep breath, then go back to the drawing board to decide how to proceed with a market study for a much-needed new arena.

After a lengthy discussion Wednesday night, councilors voted 5-3 to hold off on interviewing marketing firms, primarily to see whether the economy will stabilize in the coming months.

“Based on the discussion last night, the impression I was left with is that we would be coming back in six to nine months, or after our budget is in place,” City Manager Edward Barrett said Thursday. “The city’s long-term goal has always been to replace the auditorium; I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Despite delaying further a project that already has been in the works for nearly a decade, most councilors were optimistic that Wednesday’s decision will be a minor hiccup.

“I don’t see it as a setback; I see it as us looking for more clarity on what the study should accomplish,” said Councilor Susan Hawes, chairwoman of the special committee on arena implementation. “I only wish we had come to that decision sooner.”

Councilor David Nealley agreed that Wednesday’s discussion did little to change anyone’s mind that a new arena, and an updated study, is needed eventually.

“But if we wait six to eight months, it might make the study more relevant,” he said. “In that sense, we’re trying to be as fiscally responsible as we can.”

The city first conducted a market study on a new arena in 2002. By most accounts, that study does not consider the current economic climate, nor does it provide a truly realistic option for Bangor.

Only two months ago, though, city leaders erected a sign in Bass Park at the approximate site of the future arena that was meant to signify Bangor’s commitment to the project. City Council Chairman Gerry Palmer even projected an ambitious groundbreaking date for 2011.

Wednesday’s decision likely puts that goal in jeopardy.

Palmer, who did not vote to delay a study, said Wednesday that he doesn’t think the city should wait. He said the best thing for the current economy is construction, which would create jobs.

“It may be time to speed this up,” he said. “We need a plan.”

Even the councilors who voted to wait for a new study indicated that they would be willing to support one with certain conditions. For some, though, the estimated cost of $75,000 seemed high.

“It seems to me that a study would tell us what we already know,” Councilor Hal Wheeler said. “A lot of this seems like common sense.”

Councilor Rick Bronson said he’s not sure whether the city can come to consensus on exactly what is appropriate to build. He said that when the current auditorium opened in 1955 it was the largest facility north of Boston. Now, Portland and Augusta have venues that draw business from Bangor.

“The market has simply moved away from us,” he said. “I want a shiny new facility too, but I want something realistic. We don’t need pie in the sky.”

Bangor leaders have long recognized the need for a new arena, but it was only a few years ago that they found a way to pay for it without taxpayers footing the bill.

Hollywood Slots Hotel and Raceway, still the only gaming facility in Maine, was approved by voters mainly with the stipulation that a portion of its proceeds would go toward funding a new Bangor arena.

Since that facility opened at its temporarily location in November 2005, Bangor has received more than $4 million in revenue. While the money stream has been steady, some councilors wondered whether it would stay that way in years to come.

“What happens in 10 years if Hollywood Slots packs up and moves?” asked Councilor Richard Stone.

Hawes said, in that instance, it would be the city’s responsibility to find a new revenue source but she doesn’t think the slots parlor will leave.

“We have always said that this would never be a taxpayer burden,” she said.

Another concern from Wednesday meeting was: The longer the city waits to put a shovel in the ground, the more a new arena could cost. When the city conducted its first study, in 2002, one cost estimate was around $60 million. That same facility today would cost $90 million and no city leader is likely to support a project of that scale.

According to projections from Barrett and city Finance Director Debbie Cyr, if Bangor wants to build a facility in the $40 million range, it could start now. If it wants a $60 million arena, the city might have to wait a couple years until it has more money in the bank.

The point is: A new study likely would pinpoint exactly what Bangor should build in terms of size and scope. So why wait?

“I don’t consider this waffling on our part,” Hawes said. “This is good city government. The people of Bangor elected us to be fiscally responsible.”

Hawes said city councilors are expected to come up with a better timeline at the next business and economic development committee meeting later this month.

erussell@bangordailynews.net

990-8167

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