Arena public comment session reveals division

Posted Dec. 02, 2010, at 11:15 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Comments and questions put forth during a public comment session Thursday night revealed sharp divisions over whether the city should proceed with plans to replace the aging Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center.

As people on both sides noted, there’s a lot at stake.

Supporters say that a state-of-the-art event and entertainment complex would give Bangor and the region a badly needed boost in revenues and jobs.

They say the time to do it is now, while interest rates are relatively low and construction companies are hungry for work.

Longtime resident Jerry Turner said he remembers when the existing auditorium was build more than 50 years ago, and even then it had problems. He said that during the nearly 10 years since the city began studying what it would take to replace it, he has seen the cost estimate go up from $30 million.

“Let’s start digging now,” he said. “I’ll even donate my shovel.”

John Porter, president and CEO of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, was among several representatives of local business organizations who spoke in favor of the project.

He said that because the auditorium and civic center are obsolete, Bangor can’t compete with newer, larger facilities to the south, including those in Portland and New Hampshire. As he sees it, the city’s options are to “shutter it, knock it down or build a new project.”

The concept now before the city would make Bangor a venue “unique in New England,” in large part because of nearby assets such as a 27-hole golf course, easy access to the Bangor Waterfront, Acadia National Park, the interstate and Bangor International Airport.

Opponents countered that the city is moving too fast and lacks the hard data needed to make a sound decision.

Some opponents further argued that the project must be put to a city vote because Bangor taxpayers will be left holding the bag if the anticipated revenues don’t come through.

Ken Wicks described himself as “a friend of the taxpayer.” He said his own research shows the city’s share of revenues from Hollywood Slots, which the city hoped would fund the project, in recent months has been declining and could drop even more if Scarborough Downs gets into the gaming business and the Oxford County casino is built.

The proposed arena complex, he said, must not be funded “on our property tax back. … We need to slow this process down.”

Still others wanted the new complex to be built but wondered whether the city could afford it without regional and private sector support.

Those points and others were made Thursday night during a two-hour public comment session at the Bangor Civic Center, the first of two workshop sessions the city is conducting this month. The second is set for 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7, at the same location.

According to cost projections presented last month to city officials, the arena itself would cost at least $57 million to build. A series of add-ons — namely a convention center, a connected meeting room building and sky bridges to Main and Dutton streets — could push the total to as high as $80 million.

The city hoped to finance the project with its share of revenues from Hollywood Slots Raceway & Hotel but financial projections show that alone would cover only $54 million of the cost. Using some of the proceeds of the city’s downtown development tax increment financing district would help but would require cutting through some legislative red tape.

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