June 18, 2018
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With arena approved, waterfront development takes center stage in Bangor

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
A view from Joshua Chamberlain Bridge of Bangor's waterfront.
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — With voter approval of a $65 million arena and convention center in the rearview mirror, Bangor leaders are shifting their attention down Main Street to the waterfront, an area they believe is primed for economic development.

City councilors on Wednesday discussed both short- and long-term goals for developing the waterfront and offered a clear direction to economic development staff members: Go out and aggressively market the city’s most valuable property.

“There seemed to be a consensus that we would lease land rather than sell, if we can find the right developer, but the rest [of the discussion] was: ‘Let’s start hyping this up,’” said Councilor Cary Weston, who chairs the council’s Business and Economic Development Committee.

Among the biggest variables of waterfront development planning is what the city decides to do in terms of a permanent stage that many hope would be home to the Waterfront Concert Series for many years to come.

Weston said the city has some preliminary thoughts about a permanent stage, specifically building a structure into the naturally sloping hill behind the Tim Hortons restaurant and facing the stage toward the Penobscot River. Parks and Recreation Director Tracy Willette was expected to meet Thursday with Waterfront Concerts promoter Alex Gray to discuss more details, but nothing has been decided.

The current stage, set up near the corner of Railroad and Front streets and facing Main Street, is not considered a permanent location. It’s still not certain who would pay for a permanent structure, the city or the promoter.

In addition to a large-scale concert venue, the city still envisions a smaller sloped amphitheatre and additional walking trails, elements that have been part of the waterfront master plan for more than a decade.

But the catalyst for all the planned improvements is private development. The more business Bangor lures to the waterfront and Main Street, the more tax revenue it can use to make improvements to the waterfront.

“Once we have permanence, we can build around that,” Weston said. “We really need to compliment [Economic Development Director] Rod McKay and his staff for their vision over the last 10 years in shaping that piece of property and getting it ready for the future. Now it’s time to take all of that and get a commercial return for the city.”

The newest member of the city’s economic development staff — Tanya Pereira, who was hired in March — will have the task of aggressively pursuing development opportunities on the waterfront.

The city still has a number of parcels of land for sale or lease, including a rectangular piece of land along Main Street that could accommodate up to three separate development opportunities and additional land along Railroad Street and Front Street.

“We’ve placed a high priority on moving forward with waterfront development and we are excited to talk to any and all interested parties,” Pereira said. “The property is much more marketable now, but those public investments were necessary because they provided infrastructure.”

With the arena plans approved, Pereira said all the pieces may be in place.

“The phone was ringing before the arena vote, but it’s ringing a lot more now,” she said.

City councilors are most interested in luring a hotel to the waterfront, but other possibilities include a condominium development or mixed-use retail, Weston said.

For about a decade, Bangor has worked closely with Pam Shadley, a Lexington, Mass.-based landscape architect on a master plan for the waterfront. During that time, the city has made incremental infrastructure improvements and has committed $11.5 million to those improvements, more than two-thirds of which has been covered by state and federal grant funds.

Most of the changes and improvements to the Bangor Waterfront — storm-water management, coal tar removal, etc. — largely have gone unnoticed by the public but were necessary to help pave the way for the next stages in the waterfront redevelopment.

Last December, councilors directed Shadley to move forward with the next phase of improvements, which include erecting a building with public restrooms and extending the pedestrian walkway farther toward the Sea Dog restaurant. At Wednesday’s meeting, councilors discussed the possibility of co-locating a permanent food vendor within the building that is planned for bathrooms.

“The biggest thing is engaging the private sector in this discussion and that’s what we’ve asked staff to do,” Weston said. “As a city, though, we need to be ready when the opportunity presents itself.”

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