BANGOR, Maine — The University of Maine has spent several years trying to raise enough money to renovate aging Memorial Gymnasium and re-establish it as the home court for Black Bear basketball teams.
Approximately $14 million has been committed toward that project, but athletics director Steve Abbott said unanticipated engineering and construction complications have made the proposal cost-prohibitive.
With the $65 million Cross Insurance Center in Bangor only months away from completion — and 12 miles from the Orono campus — it appears the state-of-the-art arena may become the home to UMaine basketball starting with the 2013-2014 season.
“It’s a beautiful facility,” said Abbott, who was scheduled Wednesday to tour the Cross Insurance Center for the third time in recent months.
“We are very clearly interested in playing there, and we’ve had excellent discussions with Mike Dyer and with Global Spectrum,” Abbott said.
Dyer has served for 24 years as the director of the Bass Park Complex, which includes the Bangor Auditorium and civic center. He has been appointed the general manager of the Cross Insurance Center by Global Spectrum, the company that will operate the facility for the City of Bangor.
No deal has been reached, but Abbott said UMaine has received from Global Spectrum the outline of a proposal that would have the Black Bears playing home games at the CIC next season.
“It’s something that we’re seriously considering,” Abbott said, explaining such an arrangement would benefit UMaine teams, Bangor, the arena and the university.
“It has the feel of a big-time basketball arena, but it’s sized appropriately for the Bangor area,” he added.
Abbott pointed out UMaine could avail itself of the Cross Insurance Center without having spent any money toward its construction.
University officials are weighing the pros and cons of playing at an off-campus venue. The key issues are the fees for use of the building and the logistics of how UMaine athletics would work with Global Spectrum in holding games and associated events at the CIC.
“We’re looking at what the cost would be to play down there versus the cost to play on campus,” said Abbott, who is encouraged by what he has learned so far.
“We need a contract to formalize the working arrangement, but more than the contract, we need to establish the working relationship with Mike Dyer and Global Spectrum and I’m very pleased with my dealings with them,” he added.
Abbott said a decision could come within six to eight weeks, but explained it is UMaine President Paul Ferguson who will make the determination.
Utilizing the Cross Insurance Center won’t solve one issue that has been a sticking point for Black Bear basketball coaches for many years. The teams still would not have the opportunity to practice routinely on the court where they play their home games.
UMaine women’s basketball head coach Richard Barron said it is premature to discuss the possibility of playing in Bangor, but admitted he has heard a lot of positive feedback about the facility.
In the meantime, Barron said he prefers to focus on the work he has to do helping to develop his team.
UMaine men’s basketball head coach Ted Woodward did not respond to a request for comment on the possibility of playing home games in Bangor.
The original plans for the Memorial Gym renovations centered on renovating the game venue affectionately known as “The Pit” to provide the Black Bears with a true home court on which they could play games as well as practice.
Citing skyrocketing costs involved with trying to retrofit the gym, Abbott said that part of the project is unlikely to move forward.
“We want to make it a first-rate practice facility because whether we’re playing games there or not, that’s going to be the home of the Black Bears for the [daily] work,” said Abbott, who explained the other priority is to bring the entire Memorial Gym building up to [building and safety] code.
UMaine plans to use the funds that remain, after an estimated $4.5 million in upgrades are made in the adjacent field house, to update the Memorial Gym building’s offices, locker rooms and training facilities, among other concerns.
“It’s the most significant capital renovation that we have in our department,” Abbott said. “And as long and arduous a project as it has been, we’re pleased with the developments that we’ve had and we’re hopeful that over the next couple months we’ll be able to formalize some plans for the initial work that will be done.”
Abbott said UMaine also must focus on those issues as it negotiates with Global Spectrum for possible use of the the Cross Insurance Center for basketball.
Since January 1992, UMaine basketball teams have played most of their home games on campus at Alfond Arena. It is across the parking lot from Memorial Gym, the hub of athletic activity at UMaine, where the basketball practice facility, Wallace Pool, the field house and most of the athletic department offices and locker rooms are.
Playing basketball in the hockey arena has been accompanied by some challenges and additional costs. UMaine associate athletic director Will Biberstein said it costs the department approximately $3,000 each time it has to put down the floor inside Alfond Arena.
Not only must basketball games be scheduled around the men’s and women’s hockey teams’ games and practices, a crew of UMaine staff members and student workers must put down an underlayment over the ice and then assemble the court for basketball.
When the games are over, crews must disassemble the floor and pick up the subfloor to restore the ice surface.
Playing home basketball games in Bangor would eliminate that process, although UMaine would have to transport its teams to and from the Cross Insurance Center.
Another dynamic involves attendance at basketball games and whether playing in Bangor would attract more fans than on campus. Although UMaine students make up only a tiny percentage of basketball crowds, they would have to find transportation to see games in Bangor.
UMaine basketball teams left Memorial Gym to play home games at the Bangor Auditorium for approximately 3 1/2 seasons. The Black Bears made the Auditorium their home from the start of the 1988-1989 season until late January 1992, when UMaine moved back to campus to play in the revamped Alfond Arena.
The Bangor Daily News in December announced it has committed to become a founding partner of the Cross Insurance Center. In that role, the BDN will have a presence throughout the facility, including signage and a meeting room in the convention center named for the company.
The BDN also will have access to a 14-seat suite and preferred pricing for some events. In exchange, the BDN will pay $65,000 per year for seven years, a total cost of $455,000.