June 18, 2018
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Councilors, others disagree over ideas to stop losses at Houlton civic center

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

HOULTON, Maine — A group formed to map out a cheaper financial future for the Millar Civic Center has come up with a number of ideas about how to do it, but councilors and others already are disagreeing over which ones to implement.

In February, town councilors formed an advisory board tasked with creating a viable game plan for the 14-year-old 24,200-square-foot civic center.

The facility houses an ice skating rink in the winter and is used for other events, including trade shows, wedding receptions, concerts and other events during the remainder of the year. Councilors and some taxpayers have expressed concern about how much money it is costing to operate and maintain each year.

Five months ago, the council decided an advisory board was needed to generate ideas on how to decrease costs, increase revenue and better market the facility.

With salary for management, it costs $200,000 a year to run the center. The bulk of the operating cost — 58 percent — is for electricity use, according to town officials. Revenue in 2010 paid only half of the operating costs.

While the facility can hold 3,260 people, it is too small for large concerts and shows. The majority of its revenue comes from rental income and concession profits.

Town officials have suggested that they could increase profit margins by charging more for ice time, offering more public skating hours, attracting additional users and doing a better job at marketing the facility. Ice time is now $100 an hour.

During a recent meeting, Councilor Mike Jenkins updated the group on the first meeting held by the board. Bernie Reece, director of the parks and recreation department, also spoke.

Jenkins said that the group concentrated on ways to better manage the facility and increase revenue. They came up with a list of projects to work on and are focusing on events that they can schedule after October, when there is ice in the building.

The issue of new ice hockey boards has come up several times. Jenkins said that the group proposed installing them at the center in the next few years and wanted to hold fundraisers to garner the money. He said that they also would like to keep the boards up all year. Reece told the council that installing and taking down the boards each year takes at least two weeks.

Chairman Paul Cleary said that leaving the boards up all year would turn the building into a hockey rink instead of a civic center.

“That is true,” said Jenkins. “That is what it is.”

Cleary disagreed, saying that leaving the boards up all year would take away summer rental revenue from a facility that already is losing money.

Councilor Nancy Ketch also disagreed with the idea, saying she believed it would “drastically reduce” the type of events the town could hold at the facility.

“If you leave the boards up, you lose space,” she said.

Lori Weston is the economic and community development director for the town and former executive director of the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce. She told councilors that the Chamber would not be able to display as many recreational vehicles as it normally does at its annual trade show if the boards were left up.

“My priority is the town, not the Chamber of Commerce,” said Jenkins.

“You have got to look at your customers,” said Ketch.

“Which are few and far between,” Jenkins argued.

Cleary and Ketch maintained that it would be a mistake to leave the boards up and limit the capabilities of the civic center.

The board will consider additional ideas and strategies at its next meeting.

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