BANGOR — City councilors never have been more emphatic or united about their support for building a new arena and convention center.
And yet, they know the project easily could fail if the public is not convinced of its benefits.
As they prepare to host a public hearing on a coming referendum question that asks voters whether they favor a new arena, councilors are cautiously sharpening their message.
“We can’t spend the public’s money to tell them how to vote, so we’re not going to run a campaign,” Councilor Rick Bronson said Wednesday. “But as elected officials, can we tell citizens why we’ve come to the conclusion that we have? I think the answer is ‘yes.’ That is our responsibility.
“Nobody thinks this is a slam dunk.”
Councilors will hold a special meeting on Monday, Feb. 7, during which time they will set a date for a public hearing on the arena referendum question. The council then must set a referendum vote for no earlier than 60 days after that public hearing.
The earliest the city can schedule a referendum on the arena is May, and that is the direction the council is leaning toward. If the city waits until June, councilors can link with the school budget referendum, which is held every year, but any additional delays could affect the arena timeline.
In the meantime, Bronson has been asked to draft a resolve on behalf of the council that outlines the city’s case for building a $65 million complex to replace the Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center. He and city finance director Debbie Cyr also have been working on a document that details why councilors feel an arena is important and how they plan to pay for it.
For the past several months, city councilors have moved forward cautiously with a proposed 5,800 fixed-seat arena (with a maximum seating capacity of 8,050 for certain events) and an adjacent convention center to replace the aging Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center. The project is the result of years of study and compromise, of setbacks and breakthroughs.
There is a lot at stake for the city as the citywide referendum looms. Language in the city’s code says, “No ordinance, order or resolve proposed by petition and adopted by vote of the electors shall be subject to amendment or repeal by the City Council for a period of three years from the date of enactment without ratification of the voters.”
Put simply: If city voters don’t approve the arena project, the chance may not present itself again anytime soon.
On one hand, city councilors could be buoyed if the public overwhelmingly supports the arena project. On the other, if the public rejects the proposal, councilors will be rendered politically impotent.
The city has lost the last two citizen-initiated referendums. In 2008, voters overturned a council decision to ban left turns onto Howard Street from State Street. In 2005, voters went against the council’s wishes to build a new police station on Maine Avenue near the airport. Thanks to voters, the station was built on Main Street, closer to downtown.
In addition to the arena referendum, voters also will have a chance later this year to support or overturn a council decision to consolidate the city’s fire and police dispatch service with Penobscot County.
“There are a lot of people who fear moving toward a model where everything is governed by petitions,” City Councilor Cary Weston said. “I think the easiest way to move away from that is to have votes that reinforce council decisions.
“People vote on emotion, but we’re tasked to make decisions based on information and fact.”
City councilors are relying on Hollywood Slots proceeds and a portion of the city’s downtown tax increment financing district to pay for the $65 million price tag. Based on thorough cost projections from city finance director Debbie Cyr, the city can borrow the money over 30 years and repay it without relying on any other sources. Cyr’s projections assume moderate revenue growth from Hollywood Slots from now until 2036 and also appropriating $750,000 annually from the downtown TIF.
Petitioners Bob Cimbollek, Ken Wicks and Steve Sleeper, along with other critics of the arena proposal, have said the city is putting too much faith in the financial success of Hollywood Slots. One variable that could change the equation is whether Hollywood Slots is successful in adding table games such as blackjack and poker now that voters have approved a casino with table games for Oxford County.
Wicks and others have said that Hollywood Slots revenue and TIF funds are still taxpayer dollars, and the voters should have a say in how they are used.
Cimbollek said the city would be better off renovating the existing facilities, because it could spend only what already has been banked. However, the most recent market study concluded that was not a good option for Bangor, because the current auditorium and civic center are too old to continue renovating in a cost-effective way.
The arena project now is in the design development stage. Architect Don Dethlefs and general contractor Cianbro Corp. are hoping to come back to the council with more information in April, ahead of the earliest possible date for the citywide vote.