BANGOR, Maine — The drawings that landed on city officials’ desks in 2001 were colorful, exciting and ambitious. Today, they are obsolete.
Changes in how Bangor uses its waterfront, unexpected additions to the city — especially a casino and civic center on Main Street — and fizzling deals have left the city with a waterfront that looks dramatically underdeveloped when compared to the vision crafted more than a decade ago.
The Bangor Waterfront was once an industrial site along a trash-strewn, polluted river — home to a railway switching station, an oil tank farm, a coal storage and sale facility, and an old warehouse distribution building on the verge of sliding into the river. The city decided in the 1980s that the unattractive area sorely needed a recreational and marketing makeover.
“It was a mess,” said Rod McKay, the city’s former community and economic development director, who retired in early 2012 after more than four decades working for the city. “It didn’t take a lot of imagination to think you might be able to improve it. It just took money.”
In the late 1980s, the city started buying up plots of land, bit by bit, until it owned a mile-long, 36-acre strip between the waterfront and Main Street, and tackled the challenge of figuring out what to do with it.
Late in 1998, the city hired Annapolis, Md.-based Hunter Interests Inc., for a fee of $125,000, to craft a vision for the future of the Bangor Waterfront.
Hunter returned with a 100-page feasibility report in September 1999. The firm foresaw a 250-room landmark hotel and adjacent 60,000-square-foot conference center; a midpriced 175-room secondary hotel; a marina building; multiple condominium units; office buildings; restaurants; a pavilion geared toward selling Maine products; a ferry transportation center and museum; an amphitheater; a major aesthetic overhaul; and even a tall ship parked at the dock that would be repurposed as a children’s play area.
In all, Hunter estimated the projects would bring about $144 million in private investment to the Bangor Waterfront, but the public would need to kick in about $40 million.
The city expected the waterfront plan would generate $3 million in new annual property tax revenue, 600 full-time jobs, and nearly 2,000 construction jobs.
“Clearly, the impact of Bangor’s Penobscot Riverfront Redevelopment Project will significantly improve the economy of the region while providing unsurpassed recreational opportunities for its citizens and visitors,” said a 2001 Hunter report.
By March 2001, Hunter presented artist renderings of what all this might look like.
“Ah, this old beauty,” McKay said as he took hold of the drawings during a recent interview.
“That generated a lot of excitement,” McKay said of the plan. “In fact, we took it to Washington [D.C.] to seek funding.”
As a result of that visit, the city received a $5.7 million federal grant to get the project off the ground. By March 2001, the city had received some $15 million in federal grants, guaranteed loans, state appropriations and grants, and private donations, according to a city development report from the time.
Nearly 15 years after the glowing feasibility report from Hunter Interests, the waterfront carries few of the physical traits featured in artist renderings that elicited so much excitement around the start of the new millennium.
The waterfront has seen success and increased popularity, but for reasons — and in locations — that weren’t predicted when the city started crafting its vision for the waterfront as the new millennium loomed.
“New things happened that we never anticipated,” Bangor City Manager Cathy Conlow said, calling the process “evolutionary.”
From 2002 to 2004, the National Folk Festival came to the Bangor Waterfront, which was in the midst of its first few stages of a makeover that would eventually sprout the American Folk Festival to take over for its predecessor. The 2012 festival drew an estimated 90,000 visitors to Bangor’s waterfront. It also spun off the Waterfront Concert Series, which has drawn top acts to Bangor and continues to grow. A recent University of Maine study found that the concerts have generated more than $30 million for the local economy in its first three years.
Three big-name acts — Sting, Darius Rucker, and Larry The Cable Guy and Bill Engvall — already have been announced for 2013, and a more permanent stage with a new configuration is in the works with the aim of reducing the amount of noise that reaches area neighborhoods after some residents complained about the sound in recent years.
The venue has been renamed the Darling’s Waterfront Pavillion, after Darling’s auto dealerships secured naming rights for the next four years.
“Up until the first year of the folk festival, I don’t think many people knew we even had a waterfront,” McKay said.
The biggest unanticipated event was a 2003 referendum vote that led to the approval of the state’s first racino in Bangor. Under the language approved by voters, the gambling facility had to be within 2,000 feet of a harness racetrack.
Penn National Gaming Inc., the company that ultimately built the racino, had wanted to build its facility in Bass Park, but the city preferred the site across the street to avoid disruption of events such as the Bangor State Fair and the annual basketball tournament.
In the closing months of 2005, Penn National opened a temporary Hollywood Slots at the former home of Miller’s Restaurant on Main Street.
Two years later, the slots moved to the permanent facility, complete with a 152-room hotel and attached parking garage.
In March 2012, the facility began offering table games and changed its name to Hollywood Casino. The casino brought in a net revenue of $62.7 million last year, surpassing its previous high-water mark of nearly $61.7 million in 2010, in spite of dipping revenue from its slot machines and competition from a new casino in Oxford. As the host community, Bangor gets a small percentage of that revenue.
“We didn’t envision Hollywood Casino, which now is providing a lot of the funding through tax revenue and slots revenue to help us carry out improvements in the downtown area and the waterfront,” McKay said.
The casino provided much of the money for a new auditorium for the city.
With Cross Insurance Center, which promoters are billing as one of the top entertainment attractions in the region, poised to open sometime in September, the city anticipates further revenue for the city and more attention on the waterfront area, Conlow said.
The arena will have permanent seating for around 4,000, plus about 1,500 retractable seats and several suite boxes on the third level. When set up for concerts, it will hold more than 8,000 people. Officials say the 21,000-plus square feet of meeting space and large ballroom will draw conventions and other large-scale events.
The arena is another evolutionary jump the city didn’t see coming a decade ago, Conlow said. In fact, in the artist renderings from 2001, the old auditorium’s “V” shape still can be seen in the background of the waterfront drawings.
The city’s focus shifted over the years from hotels, shops and restaurants on the riverfront to maintaining, beautifying and using open space. Bangor has spent millions of dollars in an effort to make the waterfront more appealing to investors. Some work has been visible, such as the recent shifting of earth to accommodate concerts and an amphitheater, the construction of a lighted path from Front Street to Hollywood Casino, and aesthetic improvements to roads and park areas. Other projects, such as extensive work to improve and extend utilities along the waterfront, are harder to see.
Proposals have come and gone, deals have fallen through, plans been put off. Stumbling blocks have included economic downturns, environmental restrictions, the high cost of driving pilings into the soft soil off Front Street to support future construction, and the inability of condo developers to presell enough units to finance projects to completion, according to city officials.
A year of negotiations between the city and Bar Harbor-based Fish House Grille, which hopes to build an expansion restaurant on Front Street, were put on hold in September when the restaurant’s parent company decided to put the Bangor restaurant on the back burner and instead acquire Cherrystones, a Bar Harbor eatery. Owners have said they would reconsider a Bangor expansion in the future.
The city still is looking to fill plots, including three parcels along Front Street near the water’s edge, a parcel on Main Street in front of the future amphitheater, one behind Geaghan’s Restaurant and Pub, and another at the corner of Main and Railroad streets. Conlow said in a recent interview she believes the Front Street properties are most likely to be developed first.
McKay and Conlow say the waterfront development plan isn’t dead — just different, slow and scaled back.
“Do I see us putting up a 15-story hotel on the waterfront? No, I don’t see that happening,” said Rosie Vanadestine, director of community and economic development for the city. “To say that everything in that initial plan is gone, I don’t think that’s true.”
The city will continue to entertain offers from potential developers and will market the waterfront parcels as “open for business,” Vanadestine said, adding that the city will need to “be creative” to help potential developers bring projects to fruition. Tools such as rezoning and tax increment financing agreements could play a role in future deals.
The lofty ideas for the future of the waterfront pushed the city to clean up the waterfront, make it attractive, and find ways to bring people to the shore of the Penobscot River. With people come opportunities for businesses and growth, she said
“What they did down there is improve [the waterfront] drastically” and leave the door open for other unplanned opportunities, Vanadestine said.
Conlow said that while the lofty Hunter plan hasn’t panned out as expected, it has served a useful purpose.
“Without that plan, I don’t think you’d ever have that kind of vision,” Conlow said, adding that the idea kept the city working to make the waterfront more attractive and drawing unanticipated events and development to the area.
“Those plans gave us the ability to say, ‘What if?’” she said.