Editor’s Note: In 2013, the Cross Insurance Center will become the third structure to serve as the community auditorium since 1897. This is the fourth in a four-part series to tell the historic tale of those three structures, and their importance to the Bangor region for the past 116 years and beyond.
By 2009, cost estimates for a new Bangor facility seating 6,500 to 7,000 people ranged from $40 to $100 million, depending on the plan and what it included. Project opponents disapproved of any cost in that range, considering that renovating the old auditorium would cost far less.
On Nov. 17, 2009, the day before the Bangor City Council was to receive the firm estimate for building the new arena, Bangor resident Bob Cimbollek announced he was launching a petition drive to force a referendum. Cimbollek had served on an arena committee in the 1990s and had advocated renovating the old auditorium; he disapproved of the funds the city had already spent on new-arena studies and believed that Bangor taxpayers should have the final say.
At the council meeting with Don Dethlefs, the architect from Sink Combs Dethlefs of Denver, Col., and representatives of Cianbro, which would do the construction, city councilors learned that the new arena would cost $57 million. A new convention center, built on the footprint of the existing auditorium, would cost an additional $14 million. Adding a meeting building and two sky bridges — one over Main Street and another over Dutton Street — would bring the total to about $80 million.
With $10 million already banked from Hollywood Slots revenue, a 20-year loan for $60 million at 3.5 percent interest would result in annual debt service of about $4.2 million. There would still be a gap the city would have to pay, but Bangor was already shelling out $400,000 or more every year to keep the auditorium running. The new arena would be far more energy efficient and easier to maintain and would attract more revenue-producing events to offset that shortfall — and many supporters believed the business community would step up.
Cimbollek’s petition drive to force a referendum worked, and despite the city forging ahead with plans, the issue went to the voters. This was fair; despite the entire region’s need for a new arena and its economic impact on that region, ultimately the tax liability was on Bangor residents. On May 4, 2011, voters took to the polls for the special referendum.
The 2009 study had shown that the arena’s need was unquestioned. It found that the current Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center had deficiencies that hindered the city’s ability to attract meetings and events:
•.The auditorium was too small for many traveling shows;
• The loading area was inconvenient;
• The kitchen facilities were inadequate;
• The roof was a disaster.
The Civic Center was in decent shape, but it no longer served the city’s needs. Renovation simply wasn’t enough.
Bangor already had two funding sources. The first was Hollywood Slots, from which Bangor had already received $10.5 million and expected to receive $2.3 to $3.4 million annually for the next 30 years. The other funding source was $2 million in annual revenue from the city’s tax increment financing, or TIF, fund, from which $750,000 per year would go to the arena.
And the new arena would immediately create economic benefits. It would put 1,500 construction workers on the job for two years, create 400 permanent jobs, and generate $26 million in annual economic activity.
None of those facts mattered. All that mattered was how many Bangor voters would vote to approve the arena. It was a special referendum, not about any presidential or congressional or gubernatorial race, but only about the arena. After years of debate, voters had to hit the polls to decide.
And that’s just what they did. That day, Bangor citizens voted 4,107 to 1,363 to approve the arena. That 3-to-1 ratio showed the resolve that the people of Bangor had in creating the best chance of economic impact for their city — and the entire region.
Ground was broken in August 2012 with the razing of Bass Park. Many people were sad to see the old 1970s gazebo, the fountain, the Chamber of Commerce building, and the trees go away. The only thing that remained was Paul Bunyan.
The business community has stepped forward to support the new Bangor facility. Cross Insurance will pay $3 million over 15 years for naming rights to the arena, which will be named the Cross Insurance Center. The City of Brewer, the Bangor Daily News, and Bangor Savings Bank have signed on as founding partners, committing to $455,000 each spread over seven years.
Bangor has contracted with Global Spectrum, which manages 100 public-assembly facilities worldwide, to manage the arena. Global Spectrum hired long-time Bass Park Director Mike Dyer as its director, retaining the man with decades of experience at the old facility and keeping that Bangor connection. The company brings ample experience in marketing the arena to make it a more viable economic engine for the region.
While arena specialists Sink Combs Dethlefs was the chief architect, local company WBRC Architects & Engineers provided landscape architecture, civil engineering, and other design support. The new $65 million arena will include 8,050 fixed stadium seats, 8,500 concert seating capacity, a regulation ice-hockey rink, and more than 27,000 square feet of event-center space for meeting and conference rooms and the ball-room.
Paul Bunyan currently stands guard before the construction project, which is ahead of schedule. Almost as soon as the final event at the old Bangor Auditorium finishes, the Cross Insurance Center will open in the fall of 2013.
It’s reasonable to expect that, in 50 years or so, talk will begin about Bangor needing a new arena to replace the one built in 2013. That talk won’t happen because of cut corners or roof leaks; it will happen because Bangor will have continued to grow as an economic nexus in Eastern Maine, in no small part because of the vital importance of the 2013 arena.
When that happens, we need only look back over the long history of an event center here. From the three ambitious months that gave us our first auditorium in 1897 to the seven years of careful planning that brought us the venue in 1955 to the 25 years of discussion and debate that has culminated in this new arena, we can see that Bangor has always surged ahead to remain an important economic force in the region.
Special thanks to Richard Shaw, local Bangor historian, for providing many photos and for his historical fact-checking and editing; Mike Dyer, Bass Park director; Leonard Minsky for his recollections about the construction of the Civic Center; and Bill Miller for an article he wrote in support of the new arena.
Research for this series involved many published sources, including many stories from the Bangor Daily News, written by current and past staff writers, including Jessica Bloch, Ernie Clark, Dawn Gagnon, A.J. Higgins, John Holyoke, Larry Mahoney, Dale McGarrigle, Andrew Neff, Anne Ravana, Eric Russell, Roxanne Moore Saucier, and Jeff Tuttle.