Is the new arena a luxury Bangor can afford?

By Jack McKay, Special to the BDN
Posted June 24, 2010, at 7:29 p.m.

Despite all the painful meetings and grim pronouncements about Bangor’s fiscal woes, there is no need to make difficult budget cuts — or tax increases — to make the budget. The city of Bangor currently has a fiscal surplus large enough to continue current funding levels to all departments in 2010-11 without raising taxes.

Despite this fact, on June 28 the City Council is expected to vote on a budget which has both budget cuts and property tax increases from $19.05 to $19.30. Among expected impacts are fee increases on services such as Bangor Area Transit.

In 2005, the council resolved to direct the city’s taxes on Hollywood Slots to the proposed arena project. These taxes, accumulating at a rate of $2 million to $2.5 million a year, now total more than $7.5 million. At any time the council could change this resolve and direct this taxpayer money to another purpose.

Now I think a new arena would be a wonderful thing and I greatly appreciate all the people who have put their time into making this vision a reality.

But looking to the city’s future, I think there are necessities and luxuries. The arena is a luxury — and a risky one at that.

The arena report prepared by AECOM/Sink Combs Dethlefs, which cost the city $75,000 to prepare, details several reasons why an arena would be a long shot for the Bangor region. It shows that Bangor households currently spend approximately 5 percent of our income on entertainment which is very similar to regional and national figures (meaning we don’t have extra money just waiting for good entertainment). It also notes that the “lack of stronger support for performance events (such as those at the Collins Center and Penobscot Theatre Company) could indicate that local residents would not be willing to support other entertainment events that are new to the market.”

Not to be deterred, the report notes that “the true market can extend into Canada” and singles out the daily bus service from Bangor to St. John, New Brunswick, and ferry service from “nearby” Bar Harbor connecting the area with Nova Scotia.

Since that report, both the bus and ferry service to Canada have been discontinued.

However, the biggest bet that backers of the $40 million-plus arena project are making is that Bangor taxes from Hollywood Slots will not just continue at present rates, but increase from approximately $2.1 million in 2010 to more than $4.9 million in 2020, according to the report.

Some have said that because of interest rates and other costs, now is the cheapest time to build an arena. Just because something’s cheap, however, doesn’t mean we can afford it.

I would put forth that several criteria should be met before investing in what may be the largest public works project Bangor ever considers.

First, core departments such as fire, public works, schools, police, the Bangor Public Library, BAT transportation and other services are necessities and must not be shortchanged in the process.

Second, the investment must generate jobs that pay livable wages and benefits. Hotel owners have been very active in supporting a new arena, and perhaps they and Hollywood Slots would be the biggest beneficiaries, but do these employers provide good jobs (and if so how many), or just low-wage dead-end ones?

Third, the investment must directly better Bangor residents’ lives. Major investments in such services as telecommunications, transportation and utilities could have a significant and lasting impact on Bangor residents by lowering living costs. Seattle has noted that when road construction and related costs are taken into account, it is cheaper to provide free bus transportation, and therefore encourage ridership on a state-of-the-art system, than to charge bus fares.

Fourth, the investment must have citizen support. I agree with Councilor Geoff Gratwick’s call that the arena project should go before the Bangor voters, which despite claims has never happened.

Perhaps a new arena is the best investment that Bangor can make, but the case has not been made. As this may be the largest project the city of Bangor may ever consider, there’s a good chance that our children or even their children won’t get a second chance. Let’s get this right the first time.

Jack McKay lives in Bangor and works on community and labor issues.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/06/24/opinion/is-the-new-arena-a-luxury-bangor-can-afford/ printed on July 12, 2014