Bangor council reverses course, approves arena study

Posted Feb. 18, 2009, at 9:33 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:06 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — City councilors voted Wednesday to move forward with a new arena market study, overturning a decision they made two weeks ago and quelling what one councilor called a tempest in the community.

Councilors unanimously agreed to appropriate funding for a new study but also instructed City Manager Edward Barrett to narrow the parameters of that study to make the arena affordable and economically viable.

In fact, before Barrett begins the process of interviewing marketing firms again, city councilors are expected to meet next week with members of the arena implementation committee to do just that.

“We need to nail down what we want and what we can afford,” the city manager said.

At a business and economic development committee meeting earlier this month, councilors debated at length before voting 5-3 to hold off on a new study. Those opposing the decision cited concerns about the unstable economy, but some were conflicted and even said they might support a new study immediately with certain conditions.

Before they got the chance to debate it again, members of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau staged a press conference urging the city to reconsider.

Councilor Hal Wheeler said Wednesday that it was unfortunate that the initial decision to wait created “something of a tempest in the community,” and gave some the impression that the city was waffling.

“The council decision to postpone the market study has been interpreted as an abandonment of the entire project. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Wheeler said.

When the council voted to overturn their initial decision Wednesday, representatives of the Chamber and the CVB who attended the meeting applauded.

Still, even though the council voted unanimously this time, discussion suggests that all councilors will not be on the same page with regard to wants and needs. Councilor Rick Bronson said he knows his position is unpopular but he remains vary wary of those who think, “if we build it, they will come.”

Kerrie Tripp, executive director of the CVB, said she disagrees.

“We get requests all the time that we have to turn down,” she said. “People do want to come here.”

Overriding any concerns about the size of a new arena is its potential cost.

When the city’s last arena market study was commissioned in 2002, a projection of $60 million for a 6,500- to 7,500-seat facility was outlined. However, an arena of that size would cost about $90 million today and no city councilor seems willing to support a project of that scope.

So far, the only revenue stream for a new arena comes from Hollywood Slots Hotel & Raceway. To date, about $4.5 million has been generated, but no one can accurately predict whether the slots revenue will remain constant and steady.

Jon Johnson, general manager for Hollywood Slots, told councilors Wednesday that he has been encouraged by business, even during the recent economic downtown.

One concern Johnson sought to put to rest was whether the racino will still be around in five or 10 years.

“You don’t walk away from an investment of $138 million,” he said.

In recent days, Bangor leaders have warmed to the idea of other revenue sources, particularly a state bond of $25 million that has been floated by state Sen. Joseph Perry. City councilors understand a bond is a long shot, but they liked the idea of sending that message to the state.

Penobscot County Commissioner Joseph Baldacci told councilors that the county could not offer much in the way of funding without raising taxes, but he was happy to stand with the city to urge a state partnership.

Baldacci even said he would solicit support from all counties in eastern and northern Maine, as well as senators and representatives of areas that stand to benefit from a new arena in Bangor.

“This is a regional project and we need to make more emphasis of that,” he said.

Shortly before councilors voted to move forward, Brad Ryder, a downtown business owner and member of the arena implementation committee, summed up the feelings of many.

“We’ve talked this to death,” he said. “Now, I want to see action.”

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