Whether or not Bangor builds a new conference center and performance arena is now in the hands of city voters. They will go to the polls May 4 and either approve the City Council’s plan to build the facility or kill it for at least three years.
But there is more to the vote. If the conference center and arena proposal is shot down, Bangor soon will have no such facility. The council has concluded that the current auditorium and civic center have begun to be drags on the city budget, with diminishing returns on repair and maintenance.
So in essence, the May 4 vote is a choice between a new facility or no facility.
If the no votes prevail, there will be no more indoor concerts in Bangor. If the no votes prevail, the city will have closed the door to the business-stimulating activities that a modern conference center will bring. If the no votes prevail, the revenue stream from Hollywood Slots that would be dedicated to paying for the facility — which, by the way, is the envy of most communities — will be in limbo.
Residents forced the plan to referendum using their rights under the city charter. But their insistence that the council is forging ahead without their approval is not accurate. Residents voted to dedicate gaming revenues to this project — twice — in 2003. Fears about faltering gambling revenues are a red herring, about as likely as fears that people will stop frequenting bars.
The May 4 vote also is a choice between a new vision for the city and, frankly, no vision. The new vision is of a city that understands itself as a regional employment and shopping hub, but one that also seeks to provide great cultural and business amenities to those who live and work here. The vision is of a city that aspires to bring in new entrepreneurs, which statewide, New Englandwide and national conferences can achieve.
A new facility won’t cure all the city’s ills, but it represents a key gear in the clockwork of economic and cultural vibrancy. The mall is thriving and is a regional draw in its own right. The downtown has begun to cook its own flavor and is providing residents and those from the region with goods and services qualitatively different from those at the mall. And the city has reconnected with its river heritage, as civic leaders have seen the universal appeal of creating open space near moving water.
A new performance space and conference center, adjacent to a large, riverfront hotel with a gaming parlor, will drive this vision of Bangor toward fruition.
It is true that the new facility will not be a revenue-positive or even revenue-neutral proposition for the city. But neither are good roads or responsive public safety agencies. Voters will have their say, but they should choose knowledgeably and wisely. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Bangor to make a very low-risk investment in its future, or watch its 50-year-old facility crumble into obsolescence.
Voters will have their say, but they should choose knowledgeably and wisely.