Groups push to advance arena study

Posted Feb. 06, 2009, at 7:40 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau have turned up the heat on city leaders over a decision to postpone an updated marketing study for a new arena.

Chamber and CVB officials held a press conference on Friday to strongly encourage the city to move forward with the study immediately.

“We were disappointed in [councilors’] decision Wednesday,” John Diamond, chair of the Chamber’s board of directors, said in the Chamber’s parking lot, with the aging Bangor auditorium looming in the background. “It’s important to keep momentum going behind the Bangor brand, and we see the arena being essential to that momentum.”

James Gerety, chair of the CVB’s board, said concerned members have called or e-mailed in the past two days since councilors decided to hold off on a new study.

“The consensus is clear that this should move forward now,” Gerety said.

Three of nine city councilors attended the impromptu press conference and offered slightly different opinions of the ongoing discussion over a new study. All cited the unstable economy as the main reason for waiting to commit up to $75,000 to tell the city what to build and how much it would cost.

Councilor David Nealley asked Diamond, hypothetically, to have each of the 800 members of the Chamber of Commerce put up $100. That would pay for a new study, Nealley said.

Councilor Hal Wheeler said he thought the reaction by the Chamber and the CVB was a little extreme.

“I don’t know what harm a delay of six months — and it could be less — would do,” he said.

City Manager Edward Barrett, who was scheduled to meet with marketing firms next week about conducting a study, said his impression was that the city would wait several months before deciding how to proceed with a study. He even spent Thursday calling five firms back to say the city was backing off temporarily.

Councilor Richard Stone, however, said on Friday that he thinks a firm decision could be made later this month at the next Business and Economic Development Committee meeting.

“We need to give any firm a better handle of what we need in terms of a study,” he said. “If you’re going to buy a house, you typically go to an architect and say ‘I can afford $100,000. What will that buy?’”

The reality is that not every councilor is on the same page concerning when to commission a study. Friday’s press conference only added another element into the decade-long debate over a much-needed new arena and who will pay for it.

When Hollywood Slots Hotel and Raceway was approved by voters a few years ago, it passed with the stipulation that a portion of racino revenue go into a city account for a new arena. So far, $4 million has been banked since Hollywood Slots opened in November 2005 and many feel that spending $75,000 of that now is a worthwhile investment.

But slots revenue has slowed in recent months and some are wondering whether the stream is as steady as once thought. Nealley also pointed out that no one else, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, has stepped up to the plate financially for a facility that will benefit the entire region. The councilor said that although his position may be unpopular, his duty is to be fiscally responsible for the city.

“Many times in the past, I have seen the Bangor City Council be unduly influenced by a few dozen people,” Nealley wrote in an e-mail that circulated Friday throughout city staff and others in the community. “Even if a few thousand citizens and taxpayers want us to move forward on the new arena, many thousands more know that the economy is fragile and very few would welcome an increase in property taxes in the next couple of years.”

Diamond and Gerety both were sympathetic to economic concerns, but they also said that could help the project in the long run, particularly if it could attract money from the pending federal stimulus package. Many are hopeful that the stimulus package will contain funding for municipal funding projects such as a new arena.

“We need to be as shovel-ready as possible,” Diamond said.

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