BANGOR, Maine — Petitioners seeking to force a public vote on a new arena complex in Bangor have until Jan. 14 to gather the 2,236 signatures needed, but city councilors have not ruled out a referendum vote of their own.
As a firm decision looms on whether the city will invest in a $70 million project that includes a multipurpose arena and expanded convention center, both sides are ratcheting up the rhetoric.
Resident Bob Cimbollek, who is leading the opposition group, said he thinks the council should admit it made a mistake by not allowing a public vote before the process got this far. He also has launched petitions to recall any councilor who votes in favor of the arena proposal without letting residents have a vote.
“We’ll force a vote if we have to,” Cimbollek said Monday outside City Hall. “[The council] has done too many things under the table.”
He and others continue to poke holes in the city’s plans, with the latest concern centered on parking. Cimbollek believes the project does not adequately address anticipated parking needs. According to the city’s code enforcement office, parking would be addressed during the permitting process and ultimately would need approval of the planning board.
City Council Chairwoman Susan Hawes said she and her colleagues have been wholly transparent during the debate over one of the largest projects in the city’s history. The proposal is to build a 5,800 fixed-seat arena, expandable to 8,050, and a convention center that double the existing amount of space. The project also could include a meeting building and sky bridges over Main Street and Dutton Street, bringing the total cost to $80 million, but those pieces are looking unlikely at this point, councilors have said.
In the past two weeks, the council has held two public comment sessions to hear concerns. Criticism has come from a relatively small contingent, although Cimbollek said he is confident there are many more like him. One opponent, Gary Watson of Bangor, has proposed an alternative dome-shaped arena that he said could be built for a lot less than $70 million.
“They are certainly within their right to pursue a referendum,” Hawes said. “We’ve had an extensive process in getting to this point and this is the design we’ve settled on for a host of reasons. I don’t think that’s something we’re going to get them to understand.”
Hawes said the council plans to meet on Thursday, Dec. 16, and again next Monday, Dec. 20, before deciding how to proceed. The next step in the project would be to move forward with what is known as design development, a step that could cost approximately $800,000.
“We haven’t decided on a citywide vote,” she said. “That is something we’ll have to discuss.”
If the city pursues a referendum vote on its own, it could control the timeline and, perhaps, earn more political capital with residents.
Cimbollek said even if the city goes that route, his plan will not change. If his petition were successful, Bangor residents would be asked whether or not to authorize construction of a new arena at Bass Park. The City Council would retain some control over when a referendum vote could be held.
The project’s construction manager, Cianbro Corp., already has established an aggressive timeline and said the city needs to act by January to ensure a May 2011 groundbreaking and prevent costs from going up.
Despite the disparate views of each side, both are focused on the same thing: money.
So far, the only funding source for a new arena is the city’s share of proceeds from Hollywood Slots. The city now has about $10 million and expects to generate between $2.5 million and $3 million annually. Two weeks ago, city finance director Debbie Cyr said the city could support a $54 million project using slots revenue alone, assuming a 30-year bond.
Recently, other funding sources, including appropriating money from Bangor’s downtown tax increment financing district funds, have emerged. Additionally, a friends group of local business and civic leaders has formed to solicit private sector donations.
Cimbollek and others said relying so heavily on Hollywood Slots revenue is a gamble the city cannot afford.