April 21, 2018
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Houlton seeks solution for escalating civic center costs

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

HOULTON, Maine — For most people in Houlton, the Millar Civic Center is one of the centers of the community. It is the place where children play hockey and learn to ice skate, where trade and gun shows are held and where wedding receptions and other large gatherings take place.

But town councilors on Monday evening focused on a cold, hard fact — the Civic Center is costing more money than it is bringing in, and the town wants to do something about it.

During a brief meeting, the topic of what to do about generating more revenue or cutting costs at the facility took up the bulk of the session. Town Manager Doug Hazlett said that the major question was whether the facility was “paying for itself.”

“The answer is, no it is not,” he said Monday evening.

With salary for management, it costs $200,000 a year to run the 24,200-square-foot center, which was rebuilt in 1999-2000 after its roof collapsed under the weight of snow in 1998.

The bulk of the operating cost — 58 percent — is from electricity use, Hazlett said. He told councilors that revenue in 2010 only paid half of the operating costs.

While the facility can hold 3,260 people, it is too small for large concerts and shows. The majority of its revenue comes from rental income and concession profits. A local hockey club and the Houlton-Hodgdon Blackhawks hockey team are the primary renters, and the facility also brings in income from public skating, wedding receptions, comedy shows and related events. The hockey club and teams will pay $100 an hour for ice time this year.

“We do not break even in the winter,” said Hazlett. “And we kind of break even in the summer.”

Hazlett proposed forming a five member focus groups to explore ways to make the center more fiscally viable. Some of the suggestions were to look at charging more for ice time, attracting additional users and doing a better job at marketing the facility.

“We don’t spend a dime on marketing,” he said. “We could do a better job of attracting users in the summer.”

Hazlett said that the Presque Isle Forum charges $110 an hour for ice time, and they charge the user an additional amount for the labor needed for each particular event. Houlton does not. Hazlett said that the group could consider doing something similar.

Councilor Mike Jenkins said that town officials had to figure out a way to generate more revenue for the center. He said he was surprised to learn that the facility only offered public skating eight hours a week, something that he thought should change.

Councilor Sue Tortello suggested that the council look to Presque Isle to see what they do to generate revenue for The Forum.

“Also, what are places in Lincoln and Millinocket and Canada doing?” she asked. “What are some alternative uses for the facility?”

Over the Fourth of July, the center is often the site of a laser tag event. She suggested that the town could hold more laser tag events or look at similar ideas to generate more summer revenue.

Councilors voted to form the focus group, which will begin work in the coming weeks.

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