Action Needed on Arena

Posted March 15, 2010, at 5:43 p.m.

Like a rusty old car starting on a subzero day, the economy is creaking back to life. Before long, interest rates will begin inching up, demand for construction material will rise as will their prices and building contractors will see their calendars fill up. Now, then, is the time for the Bangor City Council to commit to building a new Bangor arena and conference center.

With Hollywood Slots, the city has the good fortune of a regular and virtually recessionproof source of annual revenue to pay off the bond it will secure to build the facility. At an estimated $50 million, the project is a big investment for which the city must expect a big payoff. But the homework has been done; the city has paid for the requisite studies, and it is time for the recommendations those studies brought to be heeded.

The heart of the facility will be a performance space that seats 5,400, which can be expanded to 7,400 seats. The performance space will be an important community amenity. It will mean Greater Bangor will be able to enjoy more trade shows, concerts and other performances, which in turn will draw people to downtown where they will spend money. But it will not be a moneymaker in and of itself. If its operational costs break even, that’s a success.

But when a conference facility is included in the package, then the project, with its proximity to the Hollywood Slots hotel, begins to make strong economic sense. Twenty years ago, the successful Samoset Resort in Rockport saw so much demand for hosting conferences that it converted its indoor tennis courts to meeting space. The Samoset hosts scores of conferences annually which draw visitors from around the state and around the nation. With a modern civic center, Bangor could grab some of this action.

The latest wrinkle in the quest for a new arena and civic center is whether the city will hire Eastern Maine Development Corp. to assist in raising more funds. Though the city would be laying out more money, EMDC is likely to bring in that much and more. Its longtime ties to the world of federal, state and private grants are valuable, and they are ties that are unlikely to be tapped by the city alone.

A new arena and civic center will not be a silver bullet, so local expectations must be tempered accordingly. But those amenities will augment the many fine assets Bangor already has, such as its improving riverfront, its eclectic downtown, small-town vibe and its mall, which draws shoppers from a large region of the state and Canada.

Councilors are understandably reluctant to take the plunge on such a big-ticket item, but act they must, and act soon if they are to get the best bang for those big bucks in this favorable bidding climate.

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