BANGOR, Maine — A public comment session hosted Tuesday night by the newly formed Friends of the Maine Center generated mostly enthusiastic support for a new arena complex, but a handful of audience members remained wary of its high cost.
The friends group, made up of Bangor-area business and community leaders, formed to help guide the city in making one of the biggest decisions in its 176-year history. Co-chairmen Mark Woodward and Miles Theeman, along with Michael Aube of Eastern Maine Development Corp., Kerrie Tripp of the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau and others fielded questions and concerns from a crowd of about 50 people.
Many of the comments and suggestions Tuesday covered topics that have been addressed during one of the many recent City Council workshops.
Last week, the project’s architect and general contractor provided the city with a cost projection of $70 million to build a 5,800 fixed-seat arena (expandable to 8,000) and a convention center that doubles the amount of existing space. For an additional $10 million, the city could add a meeting room building and two sky bridges over Main Street and Dutton Street.
Perhaps the biggest question that arose out of Tuesday’s public session was: What will be the gap between the funds the city can put towards this project from Hollywood Slots revenue and the project’s total?
Unfortunately, the answer didn’t come.
Aube said he and others are working feverishly to identify that potential gap and come up with funds to bridge it without relying on taxpayers.
Although the friends group held the public comment session, the decision to build lies with the nine-member City Council. Four members were in the audience, but they only listened.
Chairwoman Susan Hawes said earlier this week that the council was planning to have an in-depth conversation about the project finances next week.
City leaders aim to have a decision by the first of next year to ensure the project’s costs don’t increase.
Opponent Bob Cimbollek said the city is rushing its decision.
“I’m not convinced that this isn’t going to fall back on taxpayers,” said Cimbollek, who already had pledged to launch a citizens’ initiative to put the decision out to voters.
Instead of wondering where the remainder of the money will come from, Cimbollek said the city should just give its current funds for the arena complex to Hollywood Slots or Cianbro or any other business and let them build it, keeping the taxpayers off the hook.
Even supporters such as Tammy Higgins, who served on the initial arena implementation committee, said the public needs to be assured about finances.
“This is doable with a 30-year [loan]. The public needs to see that,” she said.
Dennis Marble, director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, said if the public views it as an investment, it’s an easier sell.
“For instance, if we don’t invest in roads, we save taxpayer money, but the taxpayer ultimately suffers,” he said.
Resident John Hansen said he has seen the most enthusiasm about a new arena coming from Bangor’s younger population.
“This can be our legacy to that generation,” he said.