Despite opposition, Civic Center bond proponents try to focus on success

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PORTLAND — Proponents of the $33 million bond referendum to renovate the Cumberland County Civic Center say the existing 45 Spring St. building, home of the Portland Pirates hockey team, costs the county money and impedes the Civic Center’s ability to attract marquee performers.

“For years, the Civic Center has been an economic engine for this area,” Civic Center Board of Trustees Chairman Neal Pratt said.

Pratt said the Civic Center contributes $15 million to the area economy every year, including secondary revenue at area restaurants and parking facilities, and salaries that employees spend in their home communities.

But, Pratt said, the 34-year-old building is in need of substantial renovations if it is going to continue to attract top national acts.

If the project is approved by voters in November, it would take approximately two years to complete, and the Civic Center would remain open during the work.

The renovations would include an expanded loading dock and renovated locker rooms. The building would have all new seats, including handicap-accessible seating that is not available now, an expanded concourse area for concessions, and additional restroom facilities.

“Club” seating would be added so the Pirates could sell season tickets aimed at big spenders and businesses looking for a place to entertain clients. The club area would have seat-side food service and its own concourse area. Pirates club ticket holders would also have first crack at the seats for concerts, ice shows and other performances.

Outside, the building would take on a modern look that Pratt said would better match the surrounding downtown area.

“We have a choice,” he said. “A vote to do nothing does not cost nothing.”

If the building is not renovated, Pratt said, it will continue to decline and revenue will continue to decrease.

County Commissioner Richard Feeney said there is no better time to renovate, because interest rates and construction costs are very low.

The county has estimated that a 25-year bond at an interest rate of 4.5 percent would accumulate $22.1 million in interest, bringing the total cost of the project to $54.3 million.

However, the bond market right now has interest rates closer to 3 percent, Pratt noted, which would mean lower payments.

Under the proposal, half of the annual payback would be covered by $1 million in bonds authorized for the renovated Cumberland County Jail. Rather than retire the jail bond, the county will maintain current borrowing levels.

Pratt said the remainder of the annual cost would come from revenue generated by the modern building, including a $1-per-ticket surcharge.

He said there “should not be any net impact on (county residents’) taxes.”

While there have been rumors in the past of the Pirates leaving Portland for a venue that would better meet the team’s needs, Brian Petrovek, the managing owner of the Pirates, said the team plans to sign at least a 10-year lease for the space if the bond is approved.

What will happen if it does not pass, he and Pratt said, is something they choose not to focus on.

The proponents of the renovation plan agreed they have a long road ahead of them to convince residents from Portland to Brunswick to Raymond that a renovated Civic Center is in their interest.

County Commissioner Susan Witonis voted against sending the bond to referendum, but was outvoted by her two fellow commissioners. Witonis, who represents the Windham and Lakes Region area, said the large number of people out of work in the region was the reason she could not support the referendum.

Stephen Gorden, of North Yarmouth, who is running for the newly created District 3 county commissioner seat representing Harpswell, Brunswick, Freeport, North Yarmouth, Gray, New Gloucester and Pownal, said he has spoken to “no one who supports (the bond).”

Gorden said people believe the Civic Center is a Portland issue, not a county issue, and he believes Civic Center trustees should have gone out to bond independently, rather than going through the county to issue the bond.

“It’s not a county issue,” Gorden said. “It’s none of the business of the county government.”

However, according to Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for Citizens for a Modern Civic Center, the Civic Center board is only authorized to borrow up to $5 million on its own. Beyond that, and it must go through the county to put the question to voters.

Gorden’s opponent in the District 3 race, Mark Grover of Gray, also questioned whether voters outside of Portland would support the bond.

“Is this a good time to be borrowing $33 million?,” Grover said. “The interest rates are good, but my sense is that the majority of voters outside of Portland are concerned about the cost in comparison to the benefits that they will receive. We will find out on Nov. 8.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

Sidebar Elements

A rendering of what the Free Street side of the Cumberland County Civic Center would look like if voters approve a $33 million bond to renovate the Portland building.

A rendering of what the inside of the Cumberland County Civic Center arena and concourse areas would look like after a proposed renovation of the building.