June 22, 2018
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Arena Yes or Arena No? Five things you need to know before casting your vote

Eric Zelz | BDN
Eric Zelz | BDN
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

For years, Bangor has debated the merits of replacing the aging Bangor Auditorium and outdated Bangor Civic Center with a new facility.

The debate has led to exhaustive work by a citizen ad hoc committee, dozens of public meetings, a lengthy market and feasibility study, schematic plans and revisions to those plans, and detailed financial scenarios.

On Wednesday, May 4, the project will rest in the hands of Bangor voters.

Here is what voters need to know before they answer the following ballot question: Shall the City Council of the City of Bangor adopt the following Order, which will authorize construction of a new arena at Bass Park, Bangor, Maine?

Does Bangor need a new arena?

According to a market study commissioned by the city in 2009, the existing Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center have deficiencies that hinder the city’s ability to attract meetings and events to Bangor. The auditorium, now famous for its roof leaks, is not the right size for many traveling entertainment shows. The loading area is inconvenient. The existing kitchen facilities are inadequate. Although the venue is charming for high school basketball, most agree that the seating does not work for many shows or events.

Nine city councilors are unanimous in their support of a new arena and convention center. More than a dozen former City Council chairmen from varied political backgrounds approve of the project. Members of the Greater Bangor business community, many of whom are involved in the Arena Yes campaign, have backed a new arena. (Bangor Daily News Publisher Richard J. Warren is a member of the Arena Yes steering committee.)

Opponents have said they are not necessarily against building a new arena; they just don’t want public money used. Some have suggested that the project be scaled back.

Others have said the city should use the money set aside for this project to renovate the existing facilities.

What does the arena proposal look like?

The current arena project is an updated version of an initial design first presented to the city last fall by architect Don Dethlefs and Cianbro Corp., the Pittsfield construction firm.

It calls for construction of a U-shaped arena with 5,800 fixed seats, expandable to a capacity of 8,050 seats for certain events. The arena would have state-of-the-art amenities, including skyboxes, an industrial kitchen, easily accessible loading dock space, some meeting space and more.

The project also includes an attached convention center of about 16,000 square feet that could be divided into seven individual rooms or left open to house as many as 2,800 people for specific events.

Some elements that were included in the initial plans, including a sky bridge over Main Street connecting to the Hollywood Slots parking garage, are no longer on the table.

The city has a wealth of additional information about the project online at: http://www.bangormaine.gov/cs_newarena.php.

How will the project be paid for?

The City Council has set a maximum price of $65 million for the combined arena and convention center. The cost includes design, construction and soft costs, including seats and other internal fixtures.

Bangor Finance Director Debbie Cyr said the city will borrow $57.6 million over a 30-year period and use about $7 million as a down payment. That translates to an annual debt service of approximately $3.7 million.

The city has two revenue sources that are projected to pay for the arena outright. One is the city’s proceeds from Hollywood Slots. Bangor receives 1 percent of the 39 percent tax on Hollywood Slots revenue that is paid to the state. Additionally, the city receives 3 percent of net revenue directly from Hollywood Slots.

Bangor has earned $10.5 million since the facility opened in 2005 and Cyr has projected between $2.3 million and $3.4 million annually for the next 30 years. That assumes a conservative 1.5 percent annual increase and does not consider whether Hollywood Slots adds table games in the future.
The other funding source is the city’s downtown tax increment financing, or TIF, fund. The city generates $2 million in property taxes annually from that fund and would appropriate $750,000 annually toward the arena project. Overwhelmingly, the biggest taxpayer in the downtown TIF is Hollywood Slots.

Opponents have argued that voters should not trust the numbers and that the city is gambling on Hollywood Slots. If the facility were to close, the city would lose that revenue but would still collect taxes on the building, Cyr said.

What happens if the city does not build?

The existing Bangor Auditorium was built in 1955 and has significant deficiencies that, if not addressed, could force its closure. The Bangor Civic Center, built in 1978, is not as dilapidated but it no longer meets the city’s needs, according to the market study.

Bangor taxpayers have been subsidizing operation of the auditorium and civic center to the tune of $500,000 annually, a number that could increase if the city does nothing.

For proponents, a new arena and convention center is the linchpin of future economic development in the city of Bangor and provides the city with yet another venue for cultural events coupled with its burgeoning waterfront.

If the city does not build a new facility, it still will have a large amount of money from Hollywood Slots’ revenue that it would need to decide how to spend. However, councilors believe that the will of voters in 2003, when they approved the construction of Hollywood Slots, was to use that revenue to build a new arena or auditorium.

Opponents believe the project as proposed is too expensive and too risky and have suggested that the revenue could be used to reduce the tax rate, to subsidize education or to renovate or improve existing infrastructure, such as roads or sidewalks.

Where and when do I vote?

Registered Bangor voters still can vote by absentee ballot on Tuesday, May 2, and Wednesday, May 3, at Bangor City Hall on Harlow Street.

Those who choose to vote in person may cast their ballot from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, at the Bangor Civic Center.

The case for Yes (written by Arena Yes members):

On Wednesday, Bangor voters will choose whether to create vibrancy for the next generation or give in to fear and give up on the notion that we have a brighter future before us.

For more than a decade, city leaders have sought to replace the outdated Auditorium and Civic Center, and through hard work and fortunate circumstance have a $65 million plan that fits the city’s ambitions and its budget.

The project has tangible economic benefits: It will put 1,500 construction workers on the job for two years, create 400 permanent jobs and generate $26 million annually in additional local economic activity.

Importantly, it is fully financed by the fees and taxes paid by Hollywood Slots, with no impact on local property tax payers. The financing plan uses conservative projections and requires no state legislative action.

Bangor’s current Auditorium complex is beyond repair, and even if it could be fixed, its footprint doesn’t meet the needs of modern event planners. It will continue to lose business and soon will have to be shuttered.

We have the means to leave our children a gathering place that brings both prosperity and community pride. Vote “yes” for a better Bangor.

The case for No (written by Ken Wicks, one of the petitioners):

Think of our children paying the next 30 years of arena mortgage and taxes. Millions of dollars for a new arena but not a penny for roads. No spring cleanup this year but unlimited funds to promote and advertise the elite entertainment center. Shortfall in the school budget but the slots facility will pay the arena mortgage for the next 30 years?

Hollywood Slots gambling taxes peaked in 2010 at $2,396,851. Gambling taxes have fallen an average 9 percent each month since December compared to the previous year.

In a publicly traded stock company, how soon before Penn National closes their money loser in Bangor and focuses on their other 22 casinos out of state?

The 30-year arena mortgage is proposed at an average $3,700,000 per year and a 20-year mortgage could be $4,800,000 per year or more depending on the interest rate.

All slots gambling taxes, slots property taxes, and downtown property taxes belong to the city taxpayers and could be first used for tax relief and more essential city projects.

Did we not learn a lesson from the federal government about borrowing until we are broke?

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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