A panel is recommending that the city look into new uses for Bass Park — putting into question whether Bangor’s 166-year-old harness racing industry has a future.
Citing declining revenues at the track, the Cross Insurance Center Advisory Board — a group of residents and business leaders commissioned by the venue’s management company — is recommending the city analyze the value of harness racing in Bangor, and create a master plan for “one of the last remaining undeveloped ‘in town’ spaces,” according to the report, signed by the board’s Chairman Miles Unobsky Theeman.
“Finding new revenues for the entire Bass Park complex is imperative, especially as the complex’s buildings mature,” the advisory board wrote in a June 6 report to the city — which also recommended that Bangor hire a traffic planner to study the impact of charging to park at the Cross Insurance Center.
And at least three members of the city council say it’s time to do something new with the property.
Harness Racing “is really not necessarily the highest and best use for the city,” said City Council Chairman Joe Baldacci during a July 10 council meeting. “I think it has a historic relationship with Bangor and we’re really proud of the history there but I think you are right to ask, ‘what is the future?’”
But shutting down harness racing would be complicated.
The 2003 referendum vote authorizing Bangor’s slots parlor required that Hollywood Casino be located within 2,000 feet of the racetrack, said City Solicitor Norm Heitmann. And Penn National Gaming, which operates the race track and owns Hollywood Casino Hotel & Raceway Bangor, just entered the ninth year of a 15-year lease at Bass Park — which it has the option of extending to 45 years, he said.
The Legislature would first need to change the harness racing requirement for Hollywood Casino, and then Penn National would have to agree to amend its lease to no longer use Bass Park for harness racing, Heitmann said.
Baldacci said the process could take years and the city should start by gaining input from harness racing stakeholder groups, including Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association and Penn National.
“It would be extremely premature to comment on speculation,” said Dan Cashman, spokesman for the casino, when asked whether it would support changing Bass Park’s use.
Representatives from the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Tuesday.
Maine’s harness racing industry was estimated to have generated $29.6 million in direct revenue in 2016 and 1,026 temporary, full-time and part-time jobs, according to a University of Southern Maine report.
But revenues from betting on harness racing have fallen steadily from about $70 million in 2002 to less than $30 million in 2016, according to the report.
Harness racing has existed in Bangor since at least the 1850s and Maplewood Park, later called Bass Park, was built in 1883, according to the the Lost Trotting Parks Heritage Center, which traces harness racing’s history in Maine.
Several city councilors supported the idea of finding other uses for Bass Park, including David Nealley and Ben Sprague, who said races are no longer the large events he remembers as a kid.
“This is geographic space that is quite valuable for the city,” Sprague said. “Whether it’s recreational space, or commercial space, or even mixed-use housing, I think there is a lot of creative, visually and commercially appealing things you could do with that entire space, the parking lot included.”