The city of Bangor has been named this year’s winner of the Community Service Award, but the award extends far beyond just the municipal entity. It’s in recognition of the city staff, the city council, and the voters who made possible the Cross Insurance Center, which has become a symbol of the city’s efforts to build its presence as the region’s economic center.
“I think it’s a wonderful tribute to the city… and the people… stayed the course over the last two decades trying to get this project accomplished,” said City Manager Cathy Conlow. “It was a massive partnership between so many different entities, so many different people.”
City councils from the mid-1990s began the push to replace the Bangor Auditorium. After Penn National Gaming first came to town as Hollywood Slots, the council then voted to set aside revenue earned from Hollywood Slots for a new arena. Subsequent councils upheld that directive, and today the money will support the 30-year debt service on the new arena.
“They could have used that money from Hollywood Slots for anything,” said Conlow. “[But] they found a dedicated purpose for that money, they sat on that money, and they never wavered from that position… There was a lot of forward thinking over a long period of time.”
There were doubters. Many wanted to renovate the existing Bangor Auditorium, to save money or preserve nostalgia. But the supporters of the new arena knew that the old auditorium had far outlived its usefulness as a tool to draw people to Bangor and fuel the city’s and the region’s growth. When it came to a referendum, Bangor voters approved the new arena by a 3-1 ratio.
But with the arena’s debt service hinging on money from what became Hollywood Casino, some voiced concerns of what would happen if the casino left Bangor. But Conlow pointed out that planning around slim chances of “ifs” and “maybes” is no way to build the city.
“I don’t plan for that any more than I’d plan for the fact that the Bangor Mall might go away one day,” she said. “If I planned for every catastrophe in that manner, we’d never do anything.”
There were probably opponents of the original auditorium, built in 1897 just to bring a music festival to Bangor, but it certainly played a part in Bangor’s growth. When talk of replacing it began in the 1940s, many opposed it out of financial and nostalgic concerns. But the new one did come, in October 1955, at about the same time the interstate highway came through Bangor. Those two things were key to Bangor’s growth.
Now, the city has done it again. Already, the Cross Insurance Center is making differences. It used to be that a dozen or so non-basketball events at the Bangor Auditorium was the norm; so far, the Cross Center has hosted 95 events, averaging one show in the arena every nine days. It’s just getting started, and it’s doing exactly what it was supposed to do.
“It’s bringing in the level of talent, the kinds of acts that we’ve always anticipated, as well as being the go-to place at the convention center piece of it,” Conlow said.
With the city’s revitalized downtown, burgeoning waterfront, busy casino, and its new crown jewel in the Cross Insurance Center, Conlow says the city’s position, which has always been strong, is strengthened in ways many wouldn’t have believed a few years ago.
“I think there is a desire to continue our tradition as being a special place,” she said. “This was something that the voters saw would sort of anchor and continue to cement our place as a regional hub and maybe a New England hub.”
Or even a regional hub, she added.
“Even maybe expand our placement as something special for all of New England,” Conlow said. “This is a special place, and we get to share it with a lot of people.”