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Maine Arena in the Hands of Voters

Voters in Cumberland County, Maine, Tuesday will vote on a 25-year, $33 million bond plan to renovate the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.

Backers say that modernizing the 34-year-old sports and concert venue is essential to the economic vibrancy of southern Maine. Opponents, while acknowledging the need for repair, question the cost and immediate need, and even whether the county should be in the arena business at all.

The total estimated cost, including interest, would be $55.6 million, according to a financial statement issued by the county.

“The investment we put in when the Civic Center was first built was very beneficial to the region and its economic development,” said county manager Peter Crichton. “Now we’re seeing that as the Civic Center gets older, it hasn’t been able to compete.”

A quarterly report that Civic Center controller Mark Eddy issued Sept. 30 said the facility has lost $379,000 this year.

The center, built in 1977, is home to the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates and also hosts concerts, trade shows, conventions, high school graduation ceremonies, and occasional University of Maine hockey games. It holds 6,733 permanent seats and can accommodate 9,500 spectators for concerts. Bond proponents say disrepair has caused a loss in concert bookings to comparable arenas in Lowell, Mass., and Manchester, N.H.

“It’s a 34-year-old building that has yet to see a capital improvement. It’s work that’s long overdue in every aspect, from the loading dock to the restrooms to the technology. You name it, the building needs it,” said Brian Petrovek, managing owner of the Pirates, the prime tenant, The team is the minor-league affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Phoenix Coyotes.

The bonds would finance upgrades that include facade improvements; new seating, including wheelchair-accessible spots; additional restrooms and increased concourse space, and a new loading dock. Seating capacity would remain roughly the same — 6,800 fixed, and the ability to expand up to 7,500 for concerts. The plan calls for a $1-per-ticket surcharge.

Washington, D.C., facilities consulting firm Brailsford & Dunlavey performed an economic analysis on the building renovations, while Portland-based architectural firm SMRT Inc. is handling architectural and engineering design.

Crichton said the timing is right for the bonds. He cited low interest rates, the county’s recent retirement of bonds for jail renovations, and a AA-plus general obligation rating from Standard & Poor’s.

“This puts us in position for a project like this,” he said. The county commissioners have pledged $1 million annually from the retired jail deal — about half the issue’s amount — to cover some of the arena’s costs. Officials say the expense would have little or no effect on property taxes.

Cumberland County has an estimated population of 277,329. Portland, the county seat, which hugs the state’s southeast coast, is the largest New England metropolitan area north of Boston.

Standard & Poor’s affirmed the rating and stable outlook for Cumberland’s GOs in February, when the county issued $9.8 million of tax anticipation notes.

“We do not expect that the long-term rating will change within the two-year parameter of the stable outlook, as we expect management will continue to manage Cumberland County’s financial operations with strong reserves and that the county’s debt burden will remain low to moderate, given its capital needs and limited service obligations,” the rating agency said.

Cumberland’s Board of Commissioners voted 2 to 1 in August in favor of putting the matter to a referendum. Commissioners James Cloutier and Richard Feeney voted in favor, while Susan Witonis opposed. The vote followed a 6-to-2 approval by the Civic Center trustees.

Neal Pratt, chairman of the Civic Center’s board of trustees, said a new building would cost over $100 million, while doing nothing would cost more than $33 million through a decline in event bookings.

Petrovek said, “It’s a difficult environment to be competitive in.” 

Attorney David Canarie, meanwhile, is urging voters to say no. “There’s no reason this can’t wait,” said Canarie, who teaches at the University of Southern Maine’s School of Business. “We need a time out in the process. We’re being given a false choice to spend $55 million over the next quarter century or the Civic Center will go away. Let’s not make this major commitment right now. Otherwise, the taxpayers will be on the hook for 25 years.”

Bond advocates hope the vote ends up differently from another recent northeastern hockey arena measure.

Three months ago, Nassau County, N.Y., sought voter approval for a $400 million bond issue to renovate Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, home to the NHL’s New York Islanders. Voters rejected the plan, which also called for a minor-league ballpark. Nassau recently submitted a revised concept to the Empire State Development Corp. that calls for a new arena and a surrounding bioscience research and development park.

“I can’t speak to the Islanders’ referendum,” said Petrovek, who was also a Harvard University goaltender in the mid-1970s. “It’s different. I really can’t create an apples-to-apples situation with the Islanders. But without renovations to the arena, we’ll be less competitive and we might not be as sustainable.”

Eddy said in his controller’s report that “this marks the third time in the past four years that the center has been utilized for five days or less during the first three months for revenue-generating events.” He added: “Hopefully, the [hockey] team will get off to a good start.”

Canarie, who said “the Pirates have weighed in too heavily on this,” suggested the arena would be better off in the hands of the city, or a private concern. “It’s beyond the county’s core capacity to run the Civic Center,” he said. “Let’s do a comprehensive study to see if the city or a private business can take it over.”

Canarie also accused the county of railroading the Civic Center bond proposal through during the summer months, when many residents are vacationing. “They publicized this in July and August. It’s not fair,” he said. “County government in Maine often flies under the radar, when in fact they’re into many things, including probate and registry of deeds.”

The city of Portland, meanwhile, has its own development proposal in the works, a $100 million Thompson’s Point development project that involves a convention center, hotel, and office park, and an arena for the Maine Red Claws, a Boston Celtics affiliate in the National Basketball Association’s Development League.

The two-year-old basketball franchise now plays in the city-owned Portland Exposition Building, a mile from the county-owned Civic Center.

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