BANGOR, Maine — There appear to be two forces at play in the discussion of a new arena in Bangor: the reality of what the local market will support and the fantasy of what some residents envision if a larger and grander facility were built.
City councilors and members of the arena implementation committee have the unenviable task of balancing both.
Representatives from ERA/AECOM and Sink Combs Dethlefs Architects, two firms hired by the city to examine the feasibility of a new arena, presented the findings of a recent market study to Bangor leaders last Friday.
The firms recommended that the city build a 5,000-seat, U-shaped arena adjacent to the existing auditorium, tear down that 50-year-old facility, rebuild conference space on the foundation and then rehabilitate the civic center. The project is set up to be done in phases with a new arena estimated at $51 million and the other three pieces at roughly $18 million.
In addition, there were several other suggestions for add-ons to the project and their cost, including a sky bridge over Main Street connecting to the Hollywood Slots parking garage and improvements to existing parking at Bass Park.
Since Friday, city councilors and arena committee members have been sifting through the recommendations and have heard wide-ranging comments from members of the public.
“We hope that there is some process for obtaining feedback, but we also have to educate the public well on this,” said Evelyn Silver of the arena committee. “There are many opinions and some are more realistic than others.”
One of the points made by the market analysts was that if Bangor moved fast on the project, it could save up to 15 percent in a soft economy, something city leaders are wary of.
“We want to have everyone weigh in without losing valuable time,” Silver said.
Most in attendance at last Friday’s presentation agreed with the overall assessment from the analysts: Bangor will never draw like Boston or even Portland, but it can tap into events that it has been missing out on.
“In my view, I thought it was pretty realistic,” City Manager Edward Barrett said.
“It’s far more reasonable than past studies,” said Silver, referring to a 2002 study that envisioned a large and lavish facility that would have cost anywhere from $60 million to $100 million.
A meeting of the arena implementation committee has been scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 3. Members are expected to take the recommendations, pare them down and report back to the consultants.
In the meantime, Silver said, she hopes to hear from the public, but she also wants them to have all the information. One point of clarification, for instance, is the size of the proposed facility. While the arena would have 5,000 fixed seats, plans also call for retractable seats on the floor area that could increase capacity to 6,500. The current Bangor Auditorium can hold about 6,000.
“We don’t want people to think we’re pushing for a smaller facility than we are,” City Council Chairman Gerry Palmer said.
No matter what size arena is built, though, there always will be people longing for something better, Silver said.
“It’s a little bit like the people who say we need JetBlue at the [Bangor International] airport,” she said. “Of course we all want that; we just don’t have the market.”
The market analysts agreed. For instance, they said Bangor has a lot of demand for mid-level country music acts but will never draw the top tier no matter how big a facility is built.
For those who want to see an 8,000 or 10,000-seat arena, consider this: Estimates from ERA/AECOM and Sink Combs Dethlefs indicated that for every 400 seats added to the original 5,000-seat proposal, $1 million would be added to the design and construction cost. That means if Bangor built a 9,000-seat arena, it would add another $10 million to the project.
Silver said it’s not just the seating but all the other amenities that come with a new facility that would help draw acts. The floor size, for instance, would fall in line with industry standards for concerts and sporting events such as ice hockey. A new arena also would have climate control that would allow it to be used throughout the hot summer months.
Another point of clarification involves the reuse of the existing auditorium. Barrett said his understanding of the recommendation was to tear down everything but the foundation. Palmer said he’s heard many ideas for the reuse of that space from building new conference space to using it as a storage shed for salt and sand.
Perhaps the biggest caveat of all was not discussed in detail last Friday — how will the city pay for a new arena? So far, revenue from Hollywood Slots is the only funding source. At the end of June, the city had about $6.5 million in that account, but some city officials are nervous that racino revenues may not hold up long term.
Palmer said the project was never meant to be funded solely by Hollywood Slots, but he also said the city council has been adamant about not asking taxpayers to foot any of the bill. Some are more hopeful than others that private funding sources will emerge.
“I think now we need to decide what parts of the a la carte we can afford right now,” said Palmer.