PORTLAND — Cumberland County voters will be asked Nov. 8 to approve borrowing $33 million to renovate the Cumberland County Civic Center.
The 34-year-old Spring Street building hosts concerts, shows, conferences and the Portland Pirates professional hockey team.
The total cost of the 25-year bond, including interest, is estimated at $55 million.
The bond would pay for improvements, including new seats, wheelchair-accessible seating, additional restrooms and concourse space, improved backstage areas, club seating, a new loading dock and external facade improvements. There will be approximately the same number of seats after renovation as there are now – 7,500 for concerts, 6,800 fixed.
Proponents of the plan say the renovations are necessary to modernize the Civic Center and keep it competitive.
Opponents believe now is not the time to ask residents to fund an entertainment center and that the county should not be in the business of entertainment.
According to the Civic Center’s monthly income statement, as of Sept. 30, the building has lost more than $378,000 this year.
In the document, Civic Center Comptroller Mark Eddy says part of the reason for the loss is 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 (of the fiscal year) for revenue generating events.”
In the August income statement, Eddy said the very successful “American Idol” concert brought in $22,000 of the center’s nearly $36,000 in monthly revenue.
However, he warned that, thanks to “severe competition from the new outdoor facility in Bangor … this may unfortunately be a rare success for the Center this year,” and added that the poor economy and fewer people attending concerts are also having an impact on the Civic Center’s income.
County Manager Peter Crichton said the county has appropriated $500,000 in this year’s budget to support the Civic Center: $206,000 for the debt service and $300,000 for last year’s operating deficit and some capital improvements.
“I don’t expect we’re going to have to do that each year,” Crichton said.
He said that until recently, the Civic Center has operated in the black or broken even, but that in the past several years, the county has spent approximately $200,000 per year to prop up the center’s losses.
Crichton blamed the economy and the current state of the building for the Civic Center’s budget struggles.
“That’s why some people want to make these improvements,” he said.
Proponents of the referendum say improvements such as the loading dock, higher-priced club seating and additional vendor space will increase revenues enough to not only cover the current losses, but cover the cost of the renovations.
“It’s not a static picture,” said Civic Center Board of Trustees Chairman Neal Pratt. “If you take that snapshot (from the past several years), it doesn’t take into account the new revenues that will be brought in.”
Pratt said the improvements will attract additional shows and provide 62 percent more points of sale for concessions, a significant revenue driver.
The new concessions would add part-time employees to the Civic Center’s operating budget, but those would be covered by the additional sales, Pratt said.
Four candidates for county commissioner in District 1 and District 3 oppose the referendum. One candidate in District 1 is in favor of the bond. They provide a range of reasons for their opposition, including questioning what good a renovated Civic Center would bring to people outside of Portland.
“If we don’t invest money, we’re not going to get any money to pay for the shortfalls,” Pratt said. “We’ll continue to lose out on events. With declining revenues and increasing costs, we’re going to get to some point in the future where taxpayers are going to have a problem on their hands.”
While there have been rumors in the past that the Portland Pirates hockey team might leave Portland for a better facility, Pirates managing owner Brian Petrovek said he’s not focused on anything except the referendum.
“I’m not spending any time thinking about the alternative,” he said. “We’re bullish about our future here.”
Petrovek said ticket sales have been a challenge for the team lately, in large part due to a lack of amenities at the Civic Center.
“I’m not blaming it entirely on the building – we could do better marketing – but we’ve had a difficult time growing our revenue streams without amenities like club seats and modern restrooms,” he said.
In the current proposal, the Pirates will not contribute directly to the renovations, but Petrovek said there were ways the team could contribute through the terms of the lease he intends to sign if the referendum is approved. He said the team is contributing to the political action committee, Citizens for a Modern Civic Center, which is advocating for the referendum.
The Pirates also helped pay for financial viability and renovation studies over the past several years.
Petrovek said he could not forecast future ticket prices, but that he thought “prices in a modernized building will likely increase.”
The plan does include a $1 per ticket surcharge for all tickets sold at the Civic Center.
Additional revenue may come in the form of naming rights for the building, although Pratt said companies that have expressed interest in the possibility have made it clear naming rights are worth more on a renovated building.
Pratt said center trustees did explore public-private partnerships and were actively involved in a potential partnership with Joseph Boulos when he was looking to build a hotel, parking garage and convention center at Lincoln Square. However, the funding model – a 1 percent meals and lodging tax increase in Cumberland County – fell through and the plans dissolved.
Pratt said the promise of $1 million per year from the county, appropriated from the $2 million per year that has been used to pay off a bond for the county jail, will also help cover the costs of renovations.
“The Civic Center contributes to the quality of life for the people of Cumberland County and beyond,” Pratt said. “It has served as a tremendous asset to the folks in Cumberland County. If we don’t invest in it and it closes because it costs too much, it’s going to be a substaintial loss.”
A mock-up of what the Spring Street side of the Cumberland County Civic Center would look like if voters approve a $33 million bond to renovate the 34-year-old building.