Bangor’s Main Street was a very different place 20 years ago. Back then, there was a struggling downtown, a decrepit waterfront full of tar residue, dilapidated buildings, and a dirty railroad yard.
Lower Main Street was replete with old, shabby buildings. Near the Hampden line were a couple of hotels that seemed to have outlived their usefulness. And across the street from those hotels was what was once a local architect’s crowning achievement: Eaton Tarbell’s Bangor Auditorium. Even then, in the early 1990s, the auditorium was past its prime: a leaky roof dripping on a venue that wasn’t big enough to draw national acts that would help stimulate the local economy.
Today, we see the differences that 20 years of careful planning and hard work have made.
First, Shaw’s came to Main Street, which resulted in the razing of several old buildings. Then came the redevelopment of the waterfront and the old railroad yard, which began with some serious abatement and led to a slow improvement process, step by step, year after year. In that time, things began coming to Bangor: the American Folk Festival, the Waterfront Concerts, KahBang. Smaller shows began springing up in the revitalized downtown.
Hollywood Casino bought the former Miller’s Restaurant and, after a few years of success, built its sprawling new casino and parking garage on the site of the older hotels on Main Street. As the host city, Bangor shared in the casino’s revenues.
Through all this, there was talk of replacing the auditorium; after years of serious debate, the project broke ground in August 2011. Now the new Cross Insurance Center promises to be a major economic game-changer in the greater Bangor region.
This isn’t lost on the city of Bangor’s Department of Community & Economic Development.
“There’s evidence everywhere that the city is growing and changing — and that’s important,” said Tanya Emery, Bangor’s director of economic and community development, in an interview a few months ago. “It’s important for the community to be dynamic and to be responsive. It’s also an indicator to people that things happening, things are going on.”
Emery is quick to note that the Cross Insurance Center is not singularly responsible for Bangor’s economic resurgence. Businesses have been choosing to locate in Bangor for many other reasons.
“A company like C&L Aerospace chose Bangor to expand because of factors like the quality of our workforce,” she said. “It’s the quality of our neighborhoods and the quality of our place to live. It’s the assets that we have, such as the waterfront and downtown.
“All of those things have to be present together to make for a sustainable economic resurgence for a community. If you just have the focus on business, you don’t have the whole picture,” Emery said.
But the importance of the CIC in the city’s upcoming growth cannot be understated. Emery hears about it all the time when she travels around Maine and even New England; everyone talks about how they hear Bangor has a lot going on.
“People are taking notice of Bangor in a way that I don’t think they have in a long time, and that’s very exciting,” Emery said.
Where Portland has long been the destination for shopping, recreation, and entertainment, people are now thinking of Bangor, she said.
“We’re reversing the funnel, where you don’t have to go south to have fun and to see world-class entertainment,” she said. “You can see the Blue Man Group in Bangor instead of going all the way to Boston to see them… It’s exciting to know that these options are here, and people don’t have to look to away for those opportunities. And we’re just getting started with this.”
It isn’t just Bangor that has seen the value of the Cross Insurance Center. From Cross Insurance, who purchased naming rights to the arena, to the many founding partners who have invested in 7-year deals — the Bangor Daily News, Bangor Savings Bank, Bee Line Cable, the city of Brewer, Premium Choice Broadband, Quirk Auto, Rudman & Winchell, Tradewinds, and the University of Maine — many entities are banking their money on the center’s future success and the economic explosion it’s expected to bring.
Emery says it’s impressive that, soon after the economic downturn, so many local partners have joined in to support the arena.
“A lot of businesses that have stepped up to support the facility,” she said. “These aren’t big mega-multinational corporations. These are Bangor-based businesses that believe in Bangor.”
There’s significant opportunity for hospitality and tourism in the region, but Emery says “we can’t focus only on those things; we need to focus on all aspects of strengthening the local economy.
“We want there to be a wealth of opportunities, because that is what enables people to come to a community, to stay in a community, and to have the opportunity to grow themselves professionally and personally,” she said.
Key to that is to bring people here, and national-scale conventions are a way to do that. She recalled a trip to a convention in Detroit, which she said would never have been on her “to visit” list, but found she had a great time there. That, she says, can happen in Bangor, with the convention facilities in Bangor.
“We now can offer the opportunity to host conventions of national industry groups,” she said. “Those conventions now have the opportunity to look at Maine and bring their people here.”
Emery credits the work of the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, who have been actively working towards bringing conventions to Bangor. And she says the approach of the GBCVB partnering with Global Spectrum, which manages the CIC for the city, cannot be understated.
“They have so much knowledge about the convention market, and with the reach of their different facilities and their sales team, we get a lot of bang for the buck in terms of spreading the word about what Bangor has to offer,” she said.
Bangor has worked hard to lay its own new foundation to ensure success in the future, and Emery says the city is ready for that success — and the unforeseen challenges.
“From an economic development perspective, the city of Bangor is in a wonderful position right now,” Emery said. “The city has done a tremendous job of keeping its eye on the prize, strategically investing in assets like downtown and the waterfront and making sure that we could dedicate funding to the Cross Insurance Center. It’s not an accident that these things happen.”