Bangor council’s planning for arena advances

Posted Feb. 25, 2010, at 10:07 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The City Council on Thursday approved a series of recommendations to move forward with a new arena, but they did so without setting a firm timeline and with the understanding that many specifics could change.

Councilors agreed to move forward as soon as possible to seek out a construction manager to shepherd the project from design to groundbreaking to completion. The Council also agreed to retain the services of Denver-based architect Don Dethlefs, who helped conduct last summer’s market study that became the basis for the new arena recommendations.

Aside from balking at a firm deadline for groundbreaking, the Council agreed to the same set of recommendations approved in December by the arena implementation committee. Many members of that committee attended Thursday’s Council workshop.

“There was a lot of tugging back and forth to get what you have today,” said arena committee member and local hotelier Free Martin. “But you have to make the tough decisions. We’re putting it in your hands.”

The general recommendations for Phase I include construction of a 5,400-fixed seat arena, expandable to 7,400 seats, to be built in Bass Park adjacent to the existing auditorium. Phase II would include renovating the existing civic center and auditorium into a variety of meeting and conference spaces.

Councilors spent a good part of Thursday’s workshop hedging on particulars that have been spelled out in the market study and by the arena committee. Rick Bronson said it was hard for him to approve any specifics without knowing what the city could reasonably afford. Cary Weston said he was straddling the line between vision and fiscal responsibility. Hal Wheeler had similar concerns about the overall costs. David Nealley supported the recommendations provided the details remained fluid.

Initial estimates for Phase I and Phase II exceeded $70 million, but many elements of both phases were considered optional or add-ons. Just a new arena would likely cost between $50 million and $55 million, although the city won’t know for sure until the project goes out to bid. Many councilors are hopeful that hungry contractors will make the process competitive and drive the price down.

Even without a concrete cost projection though, Wheeler had concerns. The city has banked approximately $7 million from its share of Hollywood Slots revenue, which is set aside for a new arena. However, based on estimates from Finance Director Debbie Cyr, the city would be looking at an annual “mortgage” payment of about $4 million, assuming a 30-year loan of around $55 million.

“With most home loans, you need a 20 percent down payment,” Wheeler said. “I don’t want to produce unrealistic expectations.”

Additionally, the city’s share of Hollywood Slots’ revenue for the next several years is expected to range between $2 million and $3 million annually, which means additional funding sources need to emerge. The city’s downtown tax increment financing district fund is one possible area and others include support from Penobscot County or the state.

Although all nine councilors have said they don’t want the cost of a new arena to fall on Bangor taxpayers, Wheeler said future councils could easily forget that pledge.

Councilor Geoff Gratwick addressed the idea of putting the arena plans out to a voter referendum as early as November.

“Citizens may need the final vote,” he said.

Kerrie Tripp, executive director of the Greater Bangor Convention & Visitors Bureau, sharply disagreed.

“I would be very concerned about moving back to a referendum,” she said.

In spite of Thursday’s recommendations, Councilor Susan Hawes, who chaired the arena implementation committee and has logged hundreds of hours hammering out details, said significant work remains.

“We’re going to have many, many more conversations about the details of Phase I and Phase II, as well as funding,” she said.

Arena committee member Evelyn Silver encouraged the councilors to keep their eye on the ball and not let all the recent work fall to the back burner. Even in a time of economic uncertainty, she said, a new arena in Bangor could be an historic opportunity.

“We want to move forward both expeditiously and cautiously,” she said. “But the costs can always keep going up.”

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