HOULTON, Maine — There is little dispute among residents of Houlton or surrounding communities that the Millar Civic Center is a gem that enriches life in the area, particularly in the winter.
But gems cost money, and for the past few years, the center has cost a lot more than it has brought in.
During a Town Council meeting earlier this week, a sizable number of residents came forward to provide input that they hope will lead to a solution to the long-term fiscal woes.
The 24,200-square-foot center is an ice rink in the winter and a site for trade and gun shows, wedding receptions and other events throughout the rest of the year.
Once named the John Millar Arena, it was rebuilt and expanded in 1999-2000 after its roof collapsed under the weight of snow in 1998.
It has an operating budget of $189,000.
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 high school hockey team are the primary renters.
Before Monday evening’s meeting, Town Manager Gene Conlogue had mentioned to councilors in an email exploring the re-creation of an outdoor ice skating rink, including where one could be located and how much it might cost to complete the project. The idea was generated after the RSU 29 board did not include in its draft budget half of the cost of the hockey boards needed for the civic center. The town had requested financing because athletes in the district make up a significant percentage of the Blackhawks players.
While the outdoor rink was barely discussed by councilors, some audience members who spoke on Monday evening alluded to it.
“An outdoor arena puts concerns on all of us, not just hockey parents,” said Serenna Fitzpatrick. “It is going to depend on the weather. We just can’t rely on Mother Nature.”
Ray Eastham said he had also heard talk of an outdoor sheet of ice, which he opposed since he believed the center was one of the best facilities north of Bangor.
“I just hate to see you step back 50 years,” he said. “There is so much potential there with the right guidance you folks on the council can give in that direction.”
Fitzpatrick, Eastham and other residents said that they felt that with proper marketing, shows, sports and other events, the center could become profitable.
Mike Jenkins said that the town needed to invest in the infrastructure of the civic center while also looking for new ways to make it more profitable and efficient.
He felt that the center needed to be outfitted with the hockey boards.
“In my opinion, the civic center is a town-owned property and should be funded as such and should not be the responsibility of RSU 29,” he told councilors.
Councilors took no official vote on the matter. The RSU 29 board is still discussing its budget for the upcoming school year.