Spending $70 million to $80 million on anything should give a community pause. And clearly, it is reasonable for some people to oppose such a big-ticket purchase. But if Bangor is going to take the next big step toward becoming a modern center of commerce and culture for northern, eastern and central Maine, some big investments are required. Building a new civic center and arena facility is one of them. It is time for the Bangor City Council to take the plunge and commit to this project that has the potential to boost both the region’s economy and quality of life.
Though there are plausible enough concerns to warrant opposing the project — its returns may not be as broad and deep as expected, the revenue stream may dry up, the facility may not be the draw its boosters believe — some of those worries expressed by critics reflect a misunderstanding of the plan.
First, the Bangor Auditorium, in its current state, does not bring in more revenue than it costs the city to run it. It is taxpayer supported. A new arena likely will continue this trend. But the arena can be understood as something retailers call a loss leader, an item on which little or no profit is made, but its popularity brings customers into the store who then may buy something else or at least return another time. If various performances, such as those on the city waterfront this summer, bring people from out of town to spend money at stores, restaurants and hotels, then those businesses are better able to hire, expand and pay more property taxes.
Second, the arena’s size is right for a community of 35,000 and the population that is within an hour’s drive. Market studies have arrived at the 5,800 fixed-seat arena, expandable to 8,050-seat capacity. It is neither too big nor too small. And the quality of life enhancement that comes with a modern entertainment venue should not be dismissed as feel-good fluff. Live music and other performances often are cited by the much sought-after self-employed 20-somethings who can grow their businesses in any Maine community. We want them here.
And with all the talk about the arena, the place most of us are likely to see the inside of in coming years, the part of the project that has the most potential to have an impact on the community is overlooked. The civic center or conference facility, if operators are diligent and market it and the city effectively, will be booked several times a month. Again, this brings people to Bangor, where they will spend money. But it also will bring the sorts of movers and shakers, business and nonprofit organization leaders who later may invest in Bangor enterprises or at least come away with an appreciation for the community.
Leaders in other communities in Maine and elsewhere would do cartwheels to have the built-in revenue stream that Bangor has for the project. Hollywood Slots may or may not see some loss to competition with the newly approved Oxford County casino. But if some gamblers travel to western Maine instead of Bangor, the growing economy likely will offset that loss for Hollywood Slots. The slot revenue will pay the bulk of the bond payments.
The growing economy provides yet another incentive to move forward on this project. Interest rates for borrowing the construction funds will never be lower, and building contractors will never be hungrier for the work. With Cianbro shepherding the plans forward, the project is in the hands of a local company that cares about the community.
Residents ought to think long and hard before signing a petition to put the conference center and arena question on the referendum ballot. Just putting such a question on the ballot in June, even if it is defeated, would derail the project for as long as a year, add to its final cost and dissipate hard-earned momentum. Now is the time to trust our representative government and not deliberate the future of the project through sound bites aimed at stirring baseless fears.
Above all, building the new facility is an investment; that is, it represents spending now with the likely return coming later — maybe even many years later. Communities that do not invest in infrastructure do not grow. Bangor has the dynamic mix of a regional shopping draw around Hogan Road and Stillwater Avenue, a revitalized downtown and a unique (for now) recreation business in Hollywood Slots. Add to it a first-rate conference and live entertainment center, and the city will be ready to fire on all cylinders.
This is the moment Bangor must seize.