PORTLAND — Voters will decide in November whether the Cumberland County Civic Center will get millions of dollars worth of renovations to modernize the antiquated facility in downtown Portland.

The Cumberland County commissioners voted 2-1 on Monday to put a $33 million bond referendum for renovations on the ballot countywide.

Commissioners Jim Cloutier and Richard Feeney said low interest rates, hungry contractors and the county’s excellent credit rating mean the county will get the best bang for its buck right now.

“Just like you don’t want to buy a house at the top of the market, you don’t want to build a building at the top of the market,” Cloutier said. “The most stressful economic times,” he said, create “the most advantageous” building circumstances for those with good credit.

Commissioner Susan Witonis and others disagreed with Cloutier’s logic. They said poor economic conditions make it an improper time to do the renovations.

“I’m not saying when times become better I could not support renovations or even a new Civic Center,” Witonis said. “(But) this is not the time to put any more of a burden on taxpayers.”

In addition to the renovations, the outcome of the vote may determine the fate of the Portland Pirates hockey team, the Civic Center’s largest tenant.

Last week, the Pirates and the Civic Center’s trustees announced that if voters approve the renovations, the Pirates will extend their lease two years, to 2014, and begin negotiations for an additional eight-year extension.

Based on revenue projections by economic analysts, the renovations would increase revenue for the county and the Pirates, making the team more profitable.

Brian Petrovek, the team’s owner, wouldn’t say whether a “no” vote would send the Pirates to another city. He has looked elsewhere for more lucrative venues in the past, but said last week that he is committed to staying in Portland.

The proposed renovations include making the Civic Center handicapped-accessible, improving the restrooms, loading docks and the facade, increasing the number of concessions, making electrical upgrades, and expanding the concourse to make walking around easier.

The renovations would also add 500 club seats, which could be used for event space and high-end concessions and generate extra revenue.

Most of the added revenue would come from increased concession sales. The renovations would increase available concessions space by 62 percent, said Paul Stevens, the project’s architect. The county now makes about $613,000 per year on concessions sales.

The county could also add a $1 surcharge to each ticket – much like the Merrill Auditorium’s $2 surcharge – which would generate about $340,000 per year.

Although the referendum would allow for a $33 million bond, the project wouldn’t necessarily cost that much. With many contractors needing work because of the struggling economy, and interest rates unusually low, the renovations could cost significantly less, said county and Civic Center officials.

Even if voters approve the $33 million bond, county officials said they will for wait for bids to come in before seeking that much money.

If the project did cost $33 million, it could raise property taxes as much as much as $5 per year for the owner of a $200,000 home. But if the project costs come in below that, taxes would stay at their current rate, or possibly even decrease.

That’s because the county recently finished paying off a 25-year bond on the county jail. Debt payments were about $2 million per year. Depending on interest rates and the total cost of the Civic Center renovations, the Civic Center’s annual debt payments would likely be about the same.

At a public hearing held before the commissioners’ vote, residents appeared split on whether to support the proposal. Some said the county should not be in the business of entertainment, and should sell the building to the city of Portland or the Pirates.

Attorney David Canarie of South Portland said the nation’s debt crisis should teach local government about taking on more debt during these turbulent economic times.

“Even though the case for renovation is compelling – and we’ve heard a lot of great reasons tonight – the timing is simply not right,” Canarie said. “The timing could not be worse.”

But Carleton Winslow, who said he owns 12 buildings in Cumberland County, echoed Cloutier’s argument about this being a good time to build.

He also said, without the renovations, the building will cost the taxpayers even more money because as it deteriorates, it will lose tenants and events while maintenance costs rise.

Cloutier pushed the quality-of-life aspect of the Civic Center. The programming it provides to tens of thousands of residents and visitors, especially in winter, and the space it offers for community events such as graduations, help make Greater Portland such an attractive place to live, he said.
Commissioner Feeney pushed the economic development aspect of the renovations.

He said the renovations would put about 150 people to work over the construction’s two-year period, and those tradesmen would buy construction materials locally, spurring the area’s economy.

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]

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