City seeking requests to oversee new arena

Posted Dec. 30, 2010, at 10:47 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The city is ready to begin seeking proposals from private management firms that have an interest in managing a new arena complex once it’s built.

Councilors voted Wednesday to start the process, which could take four to six weeks, but they hope to have a firm in place well before the first shovel breaks ground.

The project’s architect, Don Dethlefs, and representatives from Cianbro Corp., the construction manager, already have told councilors that it would be advantageous to have a private operator in place as early as possible. During the project’s design development stage, which the council voted to proceed with earlier this month, a management firm could provide advice on everything from planning for potential programming to furniture and fixtures.

“We’ve got professionals telling us that it’s imperative to have that input,” Councilor Cary Weston said Thursday. “We’ve trusted them so far because they’ve done this before.”

After years of study and debate, the City Council is proceeding cautiously with the construction of a new arena and convention center complex estimated to cost $65 million.

The proposed arena, which would replace the aging auditorium, has 5,800 fixed seats with a maximum capacity of 8,050 for concerts and other events. The convention center would replace the existing civic center and would include a variety of meeting spaces and an industrial kitchen.

To pay for construction, Bangor is counting on revenue generated from Hollywood Slots and a portion of the annual downtown development tax increment financing funds. Additionally, a group of local business and civic leaders has formed to explore private funding streams.

Although the project is progressing, the city is not yet fully committed to building a new complex and opposition has persisted in recent weeks.

City resident Bob Cimbollek, who is leading a petition drive to ensure that taxpayers have a say in the arena project, reiterated his simple request to the council on Wednesday: Let the people decide.

Councilors have said they respect the referendum process and are prepared for that possibility, but they also are united behind the project and firmly believe that its costs would not fall on taxpayers. The petitioner’s deadline to gather the 2,236 signatures needed to force a citywide vote is Jan. 14.

The current Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center is managed by Bass Park, a city-run department. The Bass Park budget is considered an enterprise fund because it generates its own revenue to support operating costs. However, for many years the city’s general fund has subsidized Bass Park operations to the tune of $450,000 to $500,000.

If a private firm is brought in, the city would pay an annual fee, but in return that firm likely would be better equipped to attract more consistent entertainment and would be more aggressive in marketing a new complex. If the new facility is filled more often, operational losses would be reduced.

“The most important thing for the council is making sure we do this right, and that means maximizing private investment opportunities,” Weston said. “We need to know where the most revenue is.”

Councilors have said the hiring of a new firm is by no means an indictment of current Bass Park Director Mike Dyer. In fact, it’s likely Dyer and most of his staff would remain on board if a private firm is hired.

“If the city is hiring somebody, they can retain as much or as little control as they care to,” Dyer said. “I’m sure there are few management companies that have people waiting in the wings to come to Bangor. We’re all interested to see what happens, but I think we’ll roll with it.”

The city has experience with private management firms in other areas of municipal government. Republic Parking of Chattanooga, Tenn., has been managing Bangor’s parking garages and public parking lots since 1996.

The city actually came close to hiring a firm in 2003 to manage the Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center. Councilors narrowed a list to three finalists — Strategic Management Group and Global Spectrum, both of Philadelphia, and Compass Facility Management Inc. of Ames, Iowa — but broke off negotiations in the eleventh hour.

If nothing else, a nationally known private management company would bring name recognition, Weston said. The Hollywood Slots Waterfront Concert Series is a good example. Local promoter Alex Gray has worked with Live Nation, one of the largest concert promotion companies in the country, to bring big-name musical acts to Bangor. Without the backing of Live Nation, Gray might not have been able to draw Tim McGraw and others.

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