Panel says new arena a necessity for Bangor

Posted Nov. 12, 2009, at 9:01 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A strong consensus of arena implementation committee members said Thursday that approving Phase I of a recent proposal — specifically, the construction of a new 5,400-seat arena — is an absolute and immediate necessity.

The same group also agreed that Phase II — a renovated civic center and conference space — is nearly as important because it would help subsidize the costs of Phase I by bringing in steady revenue.

Click here to view a full sized graphic representation of the Bangor arena proposal.

The cost of those two phases, estimated at $73.6 million, remains the biggest variable as long as Bangor has only one identified funding source — revenue from Hollywood Slots. Finance Director Debbie Cyr told the committee bluntly Thursday that if the city borrows money for the project on a traditional 20-year bond, it would not have enough money to do everything that is proposed.

Many committee members, though, believed that the cost projections were inflated and that additional revenue sources will emerge once the project is finally approved.

At a meeting Thursday, committee members went over a 135-page report prepared by ERA-AECOM and Sink, Combs, Dethlefs Architects, two consulting firms the city hired to assess the market for a new arena and to estimate cost projections.

The report outlined two phases. The first would be to build a 5,400 fixed-seat, U-shaped arena (expandable to 7,400 seats) that includes a new lobby, pedestrian bridges over Main and Dutton streets, and renovations to Paul Bunyan Park. That phase is projected to cost $57 million. The second phase calls for renovations of the existing auditorium and civic center into multipurpose conference and meeting space, at an estimated cost of $16.6 million.

The report stated, and Cyr concurred, that the city does not have the money to fund both phases right now. It could wait one year and legitimately begin Phase I, but the consultants’ recommended that Phase II be pushed back until 2018. That didn’t sit well with many attending Thursday’s committee meeting.

“We think now is the time to strike. We want both phases to go together,” said Steve Lambert, representing Hollywood Slots. Kerrie Tripp, director of the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Phase II cannot wait that long because meeting and conference space is what will bring the money into Bangor.

John Diamond, chairman of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, and others suggested scaling back portions of Phase I, such as the sky bridges, but agreed that the phases should be done together.

Cyr said the city does have the option of borrowing money over 30 years instead of 20, but that would result in an extra $14 million in interest.

Others were much more optimistic about the financial outlook.

Councilor Gerry Palmer, for instance, said recent construction projects suggest that if the city puts a new arena out to bid now, it could save up to 15 percent on the overall cost. Councilor David Nealley, a strong proponent of seeking private donations for a new arena, said he has heard privately from some potential benefactors who are simply waiting for the city to make a move.

“There will be people coming to the table once they see progress,” Nealley said.

No decisions were made at Thursday’s meeting, but the arena implementation committee will meet again in early December to make a recommendation to the Bangor City Council. Between now and that next meeting, Cyr planned to go back to the consultants to pinpoint a maximum cost the city could afford assuming Hollywood Slots remains the only revenue source and assuming a 20-year loan. That number is expected to be somewhere in the $50 million to $60 million range.

While the arena committee seemed largely supportive of moving forward with both phases immediately, any recommendations would need support of a majority of city councilors. In the past, there has been a divide among those who want to invest now and those who would like to have a little more money in the bank.

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