PORTLAND — From his law office on the seventh floor of One Portland Square, Neal Pratt will have a bird’s-eye view of the coming phase of renovation on the Cumberland County Civic Center, which could begin as soon as next month.
Pratt, chairman of the Civic Center’s board of trustees, will have a lot to watch over.
Modernization of the 35-year-old arena, which hosts concerts, shows, conferences and the Portland Pirates professional hockey team, began last August. The renovation is funded by a $33 million bond Cumberland County voters approved in 2011.
Planned improvements for the center include new seats, additional restrooms and concourse space, infrastructure improvements and changes to the external facade. The total floor space of the building will increase by more than 39,000 square feet. Seating capacity will remain about the same – 7,500 for concerts, with 6,800 fixed seats.
So far, work has concentrated on the northwest corner of the building, along Free Street. The second, much larger phase of construction is scheduled to start in the spring, although the exact date depends on the length of the Pirates’ current playing season.
The team’s last regular-season home game is scheduled for April 20, but the Pirates are a strong contender to make post-season playoffs for the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup.
Pratt said the Civic Center and the Pirates are now working out plans for that possibility. Once the season is over, the arena will be completely shut down for use while major structural changes are made.
They include replacing the so-called “suicide stairs,” an imposing bank of 31 concrete stairs at Spring and Center streets, with a two-story, glass-enclosed entrance and atrium.
“That corner is what we consider the front door,” said Pratt. “It’s a spectacular view for visitors.”
Phase two will also include expanding the loading dock on Center Street, building new rest rooms and concession areas, reconfiguring the lobby and box office, and creating 10 new luxury suites – six “tower” suites and four that will allow hockey fans to relax next to the Pirates’ home ice.
The renovation project is expected to be finished by September, and barring unforeseen delays or a Calder Cup appearance, Pratt expects to meet that timeline.
“As with any 35-year-old structure, there are challenges. But things are pretty much on time and budget,” he said. “There haven’t been any hugely difficult problems.”
When work is complete, he added, the arena will be “more user-friendly, and aesthetically far more attractive.”
The renovated Civic Center also will help Portland compete against other New England cities trying to woo concerts and events, he said. The competition may include Bangor, where the Cross Insurance Center, a $65-million, 5,800-seat arena now under construction, will replace the 58-year-old Bangor Auditorium.
Like the renovated Civic Center, the Cross Center should be open for business in September. But Pratt said he’s not worried about the new event center to the north.
“We’ve been mindful of the (Bangor project), but we don’t necessarily look at it as a competitor,” he said. “On the other hand, we don’t want events going to Bangor instead of Portland.
“The renovation makes (the Civic Center) as competitive as possible. In fact, we think we can compete with just about anybody, whether it’s in Bangor, Manchester or Providence.”
And like the Bangor arena, which sold 15-year naming rights to Cross Insurance for $3 million in 2012, the Civic Center is also considering a plan that might result in a new name, according to Pratt.
“We are actively exploring a naming rights strategy right now,” he said. “That was part of the plan from the beginning.”
An architect’s sketch of the renovated Cumberland County Civic Center, showing the glass-enclosed entrance that will replace the “suicide stairs” at Spring and Center streets.