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History of the Bangor Auditorium, Part III: Citizens divided

As the Bangor Auditorium stands atop its hill, a fountain sprays merrily in Bass Park in May 1995.
As the Bangor Auditorium stands atop its hill, a fountain sprays merrily in Bass Park in May 1995. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 22, 2013, at 3:49 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 12, 2013, at 9:21 a.m.

Click here to read all four parts of this series.

Editor’s Note: In 2013, the Cross Insurance Center will become the third structure to serve as the community auditorium since 1897. This is the third in a four-part series to tell the historic tale of those three structures, and their importance to the Bangor region for the past 116 years and beyond.

The Bangor Auditorium was failing, with myriad problems, skyrocketing operating costs, and an inability for the auditorium to properly serve the city’s needs. Many believed it was time to replace the aging structure, but not everyone agreed.

Vocal opponents believed it made better fiscal sense to renovate the existing building instead of incurring the cost of a new structure. Of course, many of them were nostalgic for the old Bangor Auditorium they knew and loved. The arguments were similar to those in the 1950s, when the 1897 building was being replaced.

Then the unthinkable happened: There was talk that the Maine Principals Association was considering moving the Class A basketball tournaments out of Bangor. Part of this was logistics: Instead of spreading the Class A, B, C, and D games over several weeks, the MPA wanted to do them all in one week, and Bangor couldn’t handle everything.

But Bangor had been the traditional home of the tourneys, and nobody could imagine going to Augusta for them. As a show of faith, and to entice the MPA, the auditorium replaced the scoreboards, and in 1998 replaced the basketball floor.

It was too little too late, and at any rate Bangor just wasn’t big enough; the MPA wanted multiple locations, so in 2004, it announced that the Class A tournaments would move to Augusta. Tradition and nostalgia weren’t enough when compared to a smaller, dilapidated structure that simply was no longer sufficient — for basketball, and for much more.

Perhaps a new auditorium was needed — more than ever.

There was a battle going on in the  early 2000s between one group that wanted to build a new arena and another group that wanted to renovate the existing Bangor Auditorium. With the city shoring up the auditorium’s operating costs by as much as $500,000 every year, Bangor officials announced the auditorium would close on Dec. 31, 2004, whether or not there was a replacement, even though the old auditorium brought 300,000 people and $30 million to Bangor every year.

The building had been reminding everyone of its ailments. In February 2002, during the Class D girls’ semifinal basketball game, the roof leaked again. The game was suspended for about 25 minutes; after play resumed, a 13-year-old boy spent the rest of the day wiping up the court with a basket full of white towels.

The next day, a roofing company installed a tarp-and-hose system to divert the water. It was the first leak since the last jury-rigged fixes five years before.

Something needed to be done, but whether Bangor renovated or built anew, it would be costly — and where was the money? In March 2002, the city tried to get the Maine House of Representatives to approve a bill to allow Bangor to levy a 1 percent sales tax on goods sold in Bangor for five years to raise $30 million. The bill did not pass, and local politicians divided even within their own parties. Meanwhile, a proposed $15 million bond to help offset the arena’s cost lost in the House, 91-47, with one lawmaker saying that Bangor’s regional problem required a regional solution.

The city pushed forward with new-arena plans nonetheless. The Bangor City Council voted to spend $100,000 to commission a study by HOK Sports Facilities Architects of Kansas City, Mo., to conduct a market study, do a preliminary design, and study the feasibility of a minor-league sports team using the facility.

By 2004, cost estimates had ballooned to $50 million for a new arena and up to $15 million for renovating the old building. Those costs would steadily climb every year the project was delayed.

Fortunately the auditorium did not close on Dec. 31, 2004..

In 2005, something big happened for Bangor: Hollywood Slots opened in the former Miller’s Restaurant building. The “racino,” as it was called, which handled the off-track betting for harness racing and operated slot machines, had two legal mandates. First, it would pay a 39 percent tax to the state, and Bangor would receive 1 percent of that. Second, 3 percent of total net revenues would go directly to Bangor.

This was an invaluable new revenue stream. Better yet, Hollywood Slots’ parent company, Penn National Gaming, announced it would build a new $131 million facility with a hotel directly across the street from the Bangor Auditorium — meaning even more revenue for Bangor in the future. After razing the old Holiday Inn and other structures, Penn National finally opened the new Hollywood Slots Hotel & Raceway on July 1, 2008. With the revenue rolling in, new-arena proponents surged ahead.

The vision had become a multiple-use arena seating 6,000 to 7,500 people, a 30,000-square-foot convention space, a parking garage, a hotel, and a main floor that could accommodate a regulation ice-hockey rink and any traveling show. Planners wanted to ensure that the arena would not leave Bangor ineligible for hosting any event and would cover the city’s needs for a long time to come.

But estimates now ran as high as $100 million, and even proponents’ visions differed. Some wanted a center suitable for large-scale arts and cultural events; others wanted a center for convention and meeting facilities. Others wanted the arena to serve both interests.

In early 2008, City Manager Ed Barrett reported that the plan was to begin designing the arena in 2010 and open it in 2012. Plan specifics were constantly in flux; debate points included its location, its amenities, whether there would be a skywalk across Main Street to Hollywood Slots, and even whether the old auditorium and civic center would be renovated and reused along with it.

One thing all the proponents agreed on was that the new arena was happening — somehow. In December 2008, Mayor Gerry Palmer unveiled a sign inside Bass Park proclaiming it was the “future site of new arena complex,” and stating that ground would be broken in 2011. It was positive, if ambitious and unrealistic, especially during a floundering economy which tanked later that year.

A new market study was put on hold,  but public outcry, and pressure from the business community, put it back on. Perhaps because of the sagging economy, many saw the new arena as critical to Bangor’s livelihood.

Click here to read all four parts of this series.

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