Two local referendum questions are on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Residents throughout Cumberland County will be asked if the county should borrow $33 million to renovate the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, and voters in Scarborough will decide if the town should borrow $39 million to build a new Wentworth Intermediate School.
We support both proposals.
Cumberland County voters will be deciding whether the 34-year-old Civic Center enters middle age with a new lease on life or needing life support.
Anyone who has been a spectator at the CCCC is well aware of some of its shortcomings: old seats; crowded, inadequate restrooms and concession areas; limited access for disabled people. But there are problems behind the scenes, too: an insufficient loading dock that costs the building attractions because crews can’t move staging and equipment in and out quickly enough; outdated locker rooms – even by minor league standards – and electrical and mechanical systems that aren’t up to code.
Opponents of the renovation plan object to the cost and argue that in a shaky economy, a dollar saved is a dollar earned. They argue that repayment of the $33 million – with interest, as much as $55 million over the life of the bond – will place an undue burden on county taxpayers. They also argue that only the city of Portland benefits from a successful, thriving Civic Center.
We don’t buy those arguments.
The Civic Center is an economic engine for all of Cumberland County. Of course it feeds the restaurants, bars and parking lots of downtown Portland. But the center and those nearby businesses also employ residents and feed families from one end of the county to the other. The building has a $1.5 million payroll, and two-thirds of its employees live outside of Portland.
If the renovation is approved and successful, the net tax impact on county residents will be negligible. The bond will be repaid through a combination of increased Civic Center revenue, a ticket surcharge and continuation of $1 million a year in existing county debt. Retiring that existing debt, from a bond for the Cumberland County Jail, would reduce the county’s annual obligation by about $2.1 million; the annual difference to individual taxpayers would, again, be negligible.
We believe its unfortunate that the Civic Center’s major tenant, the Portland Pirates hockey club, has not been asked to make a financial investment in the renovation (the Pirates organization is a supporter of the political action committee formed to promote passage of the bond referendum). But owners of the Pirates – who generate about a third of the Civic Center’s annual attendance and concession sales, and stand to gain revenue from high-priced club seats – have promised that a new, long-term lease for the building will be signed if the Civic Center is remodeled.
Considering the benefits Cumberland County reaps from the Civic Center – a venue for world-class entertainment enjoyed by people of all ages from throughout the region, the guarantee of professional hockey for many years to come, and up to $15 million annually in economic impact – it makes sense to rejuvenate the building.
Every dollar saved by rejecting the plan will be several dollars lost, not a dollar earned. Vote yes to breath new life into the Cumberland County Civic Center.
In Scarborough, poor air quality, asbestos and mold problems, and inadequate space at the existing Wentworth building make the decision one of health, as well as wealth.
Opponents of the project haven’t argued that the building doesn’t have serious problems. They just believe it’s too much to build, and too costly to build, at this time – especially since the total cost with interest could approach $66 million over the life of a 30-year bond. They contrast the proposal’s size and cost – $240 per student and 181 square feet per student (assuming 15 percent enrollment growth during its lifespan) – with reports of more modest numbers nationwide.
But they fail to compare the proposal with other schools built in Maine; when you do that, proponents have argued, the new Wentworth is squarely in line with what communities throughout the state are spending to provide students with safe, modern educational institutions that are prepared for future growth.
The alternative to building the new school will undoubtedly cost money, too: millions to continually repair and temporarily mitigate problems that have had only Band-Aid treatments for too many years.
In 2006, Scarborough voters rejected a more ambitious plan to replace Wentworth and build a new middle school. This year, with a more affordable plan on the table, the town should step up. Voters must show that they value education, the health of their young people and teachers, and the role good schools play in attracting businesses and jobs, by approving the Wentworth bond.