Fresh from victory, supporters eager for arena project to start

Arena signs, both pro and con, lined Dutton Street as voters turned out Wednesday to cast their ballot on whether to replace Bangor Auditorium with a proposed $65 million arena.
Arena signs, both pro and con, lined Dutton Street as voters turned out Wednesday to cast their ballot on whether to replace Bangor Auditorium with a proposed $65 million arena.
Posted May 05, 2011, at 7:16 p.m.
Last modified May 06, 2011, at 10:15 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — There are no more market studies to sift through, no more waiting to see whether city residents will be supportive, and no more speculation.

With the blessing of 75 percent of Bangor voters on Wednesday, city leaders now can move forward without delay on a project more than a decade in the making: replacing the Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center.

The arena and convention center complex is expected to take roughly two full years to build, but city councilors hope the first shovels are put in the ground by midsummer.

Councilor Cary Weston said many elements of the arena project were on hold pending the citywide vote. Now the city must commit to an aggressive timeline in order to stick to a maximum price of $65 million.

The next immediate steps are to formalize long-term contracts with architect Don Dethefs and construction company Cianbro Corp. and to begin exploring the best way to finance the project. Although the funding sources have been identified — revenue from Hollywood Slots will cover most of the cost and a portion of the city’s downtown tax increment financing funds will cover the rest — City Manager Catherine Conlow said the city has numerous borrowing options.

By next month, the city also expects to make a decision on hiring a private management firm to oversee the facility once it’s built. Several well-known companies in the industry have expressed interest already, and Weston said it is likely a firm will be hired during the construction phase.

During construction of the 5,800-fixed seat U-shaped arena (with a maximum capacity of 8,050) and adjoining convention center, the existing facilities will remain in use.

Conlow said the construction schedule will dictate the impact on traffic along Main Street and Buck Street, but there will be some impact.

According to projections, as many as 1,500 temporary construction jobs could be created over the next two years, and most employees will hail from Greater Bangor. An economic impact study has predicted that a new arena could create up to 400 permanent jobs in the Bangor area and contribute $26 million to the local economy.

Peter Vigue, chairman of Cianbro, said he’s proud that his firm gets to have a small part in the city’s promising future.

“Once the designs are all complete, then it’s up to us to execute and meet all the expectations of the city,” he said. “This is a community that has really taken ownership of the project. That’s really exciting.”

Michael Aube of Eastern Maine Development Corp., who was contracted by the city last year to explore private sources of funding for a new arena, said that process had been on hold but is now back on the front burner.

Aube said Thursday that three major foundations have expressed a willingness to offer private financing and he expected to initiate a discussion soon about possible naming rights.

“To me, this will be the fun part because now we have a real product to sell,” he said.

Weston said that in the 24 hours since the election, he’s heard from a number of area business leaders who are excited about the project’s potential.

“I think the private support will be as significant, if not more significant, than we thought,” he said.

Members of the Arena Yes campaign, a group of civic and business leaders that formed to back the project, stressed Thursday that their mission did not end with Wednesday’s vote. The group is now expected to discuss how best to leverage the community investment into new opportunities.

“This is not the end, but the beginning,” said Miles Theeman, president and CEO of Affiliated Healthcare Systems, one of the campaign’s co-chairmen. “Our waterfront, already an asset, can be even more exciting and vibrant. Our city can cement its role as the commercial and cultural focal point of much of Maine and eastern Canada.”

Away from Bangor, two pieces of pending legislation also could have an effect on the city’s plans for the new arena and convention center.

LD 1418, a bill submitted by Rep. Doug Damon, R-Bangor, would authorize Hollywood Slots to add table games such as blackjack and poker and, most predict, increase revenue to help pay for the arena’s construction.

When Hollywood Slots was approved by voters in 2003, the proposal included only slot machines. However, last fall, when Maine voters approved a resort casino for Oxford County, Bangor officials and Hollywood Slots leaders began pushing to level the playing field by allowing table games in Bangor as well.

That bill is scheduled for a work session before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Friday. Dan Billings, chief counsel for Gov. Paul LePage, said Wednesday that the governor likely would support LD 1418 even though he prefers to let voters have the final say over the expansion of gambling.

Another bill, LD 895, sponsored by Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, and tabled last month, was revisited for discussion on Thursday in Augusta. That bill would provide Bangor with an exemption to state laws that govern tax increment financing districts and allow the city to use TIF funds to support the arena project over 30 years instead of 20.

City leaders have said that LD 895 is not essential to the project’s financial solvency, but it would provide more flexibility if Hollywood Slots revenue does not meet expectations.

Both pieces of legislation would need approval of the House and Senate, as well as the governor’s signature.

Some other minor questions still need to be addressed in the coming months, including moving the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce building, which currently sits on the corner of Main and Dutton streets, and moving the skate park, which sits directly where the new arena will be built.

One item of strong interest for some is the status of Bangor’s famed Paul Bunyan statue. City Manager Conlow confirmed Thursday that Bunyan is not expected to be disrupted during construction.

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