BANGOR, Maine — The old Bangor Auditorium may be outdated, too small, run down and poorly designed, but for basketball fans, it’s simply the best.
That was the consensus among fans and officials interviewed Saturday on the second day of the Eastern Maine Class B, C and D high school basketball tournament.
The auditorium was built in the mid-1950s, primarily as a venue for showcasing regional high school basketball. Over the years, the annual tournament has become a beloved midwinter institution and an important economic draw for Bangor businesses.
But some people, citing poor parking, bottlenecked traffic flow inside the building, uncomfortable seating, inadequate restrooms and overcrowded concession stands, feel the arena has reached the end of its days and must be replaced. City leaders are studying the feasibility of building a new arena, but the estimated $73 million cost of a replacement facility remains controversial, and the existing auditorium has its staunch defenders.
There are three state basketball tournament sites in Maine — the Bangor Auditorium, the Augusta Civic Center and the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
“This one here is the best for basketball,” said co-director Bill Fletcher of Brewer, who has helped organize the Bangor event for the past 25 years. “The fans are closer to the action than at any other arena in the state.”
For fans and players alike, he said, the steep stadium tiers and floor-level bleachers in Bangor help keep the energy and intensity at a fever pitch.
“If you ask kids in other parts of the state, this is where they really want to play,” Fletcher said. “It’s noisy and the crowd is right there in the game.”
For 60-year-old George Gould of Waldoboro, the Bangor Auditorium feels a lot like home.
Gould, who coaches cross country and track at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, was seated up in the first-tier stadium seats watching the Medomak Valley boys battle it out with their Presque Isle rivals.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a little boy in Jonesport,” he said. “This place has been a big part of my life. Especially growing up Down East, it was a great break in the middle of the winter — a chance to do some socializing and see old friends.”
Gould said he recognizes that the old building has its problems. But he’s reluctant to see it replaced.
“I think it would be sad, because this is such an institution,” he said. “There’s a whole tradition and history of the building. You could have a new building and start a new tradition, but it won’t be the same.”
Hampden Academy friends Brooke Elliott, Lauren Lee and Cisco Montes said the old auditorium works fine for them.
“It’s a little rundown,” admitted Montes, adding that a more modern arena might draw higher-caliber musical performers to Bangor.
Their friend Glendon Zernicke of Presque Isle said the basketball tournament provides an opportunity to connect with friends from other schools.
“I’m coming down to Eastern Maine Community College next year,” he said. “A new auditorium would be really nice.”
Gayla Dever of Waldoboro said the auditorium is just fine.
“It’s very clean and very well-kept,” she said. “I love the community spirit that’s here.”
Her 19-year-old daughter Lindsay, home on break from Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire, said the Bangor Auditorium brings back happy high school memories.
“Anytime there was a game here, we’d all get on the bus and come,” she said. That said, the facility could use some improvements, she added, including better restrooms and more concession stands.
Tournament co-director and Bangor High School principal Norris Nickerson, who has attended games at the Bangor Auditorium in one capacity or another for most of his life, said the basketball tournament always feels “like a homecoming.”
“They want a new building,” he said, “but they want to keep this atmosphere.”