BANGOR, Maine — The new Cross Insurance Center is everything the old Bangor Auditorium wasn’t: It’s big, bright, airy, clean, comfortable to sit in, and its acoustics are marvelous.
That was the general reaction of students and the audience who attended Bangor High School graduation ceremonies Sunday, the first event held at the $65 million entertainment center.
About 3,500 people attended what Cross Center Assistant General Manager Todd Stoudenmire called the soft opening of the 6,000-seat venue.
The 280 graduates of the Class of 2013 were the first to be seen on the giant screen hanging atop the stage of the U-shaped arena that center owners hope will soon be dominated by the likes of Justin Bieber, UMaine basketball and monster trucks. Several graduates said they appreciated the honor and really liked the arena.
“It’s huge,” said 18-year-old graduate Devan Mailman of Glenburn of the facility. “It’s like four stories tall.”
“There’s not a bad seat in the house,” said graduate Kelli Mallory of Bangor.
The center’s operators agreed to host Sunday’s event when they learned that Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler was having difficulty finding a suitable venue for his large class of graduates, Stoudenmire said.
“I am really proud that the graduates got to enjoy this. That’s what I think is important. It’s not about us. It’s about them,” Stoudenmire said. “We have worked really hard for the last few years to get ready for this moment.”
Butler said he could tell from their widened eyes during graduation rehearsal ceremonies on Friday that the graduates, whom he described as one of the more blasé classes in Bangor High history, were impressed with Cross Center.
“They showed a lot of excitement,” said Butler, who complimented the center’s staff for their pride in the building and the professionalism they displayed in handling the graduation.
The graduates said they were especially taken by the center’s large display screen and the smaller screens around the building.
The facility is about 95 percent complete. Some televisions, signage and touch-up painting remain unfinished inside the auditorium, which recently received its temporary Health Department permit. The landscaping in the front yard is planted and some walkways have been paved, Stoudenmire said.
The largest remaining job, the razing of the old Bangor Auditorium and installation of a parking lot in its place, will finish by Sept. 1. A grand opening gala is set for Sept. 10. Center operators hope to announce their schedule of events for the rest of the year at the end of June, Stoudenmire said.
“As far as the general public is concerned, the facility is complete on the inside,” Stoudenmire said.
It appeared that way on Sunday to its first guests. They predicted that the center would draw many top-tier national entertainment acts into Bangor.
“People will want to come here to hear music,” said graduate Ben Mann of Bangor.
“I am expecting to see a lot of things happening here,” said 45-year-old Cathy Speronis of Bangor. “This will draw a lot of people into town. They have to get rid of the old building.”
The acoustics in Bangor Auditorium were poor, especially in the hallways outside the arena, Speronis said.
“It’s smaller than I expected,” said Laura Harnish, 36, of Brunswick. “I guess I just figured that by the view of the building from the outside that it would be larger, but it still seems the size of the old building. From the outside, it looks massive.”
The memories associated with Bangor Auditorium make it difficult to say goodbye to, she said.
“Everybody has done something here, whether it be basketball games, concerts, the circus,” Harnish said. “Everybody has a moment in that building. It’s just different.”
Graduate Chante Madison of Bangor agreed. She regretted not graduating in Bangor Auditorium, saying she wanted to continue in the tradition that her mother, father and several relatives had participated in.
“For some of us, change is difficult. We had attachments to that rickety old building, but it was time for it to go,” Harnish added.
The Bangor Chamber of Commerce will be the next organization to get a sneak peak at the facility. They will host an invitation-only Business After Hours in the grand ballroom at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Stoudenmire said.