BANGOR — As the county prepares to invest $33 million to help the Cumberland County Civic Center compete with flashier buildings to the south, the biggest competition for Portland going forward may well come from the north.

Bangor is investing $65 million in a new arena and convention center that will be similar in size to Portland’s civic center, but thoroughly modern and built with industry standards in mind.

The new Bangor arena, which will open in the summer of 2013, will include 5,600 permanent upholstered seats and enough capacity to accommodate up to 7,000 people for concerts. It will have 10 executive suites. The building is being constructed without ice-making equipment, but the floor will be large enough to accommodate a rink in the future.

The convention center will be attached to the arena and include a 16,000-square-foot main room and up to 18 smaller meeting rooms. The new buildings are being constructed at Bass Park in downtown Bangor, directly across the street from Hollywood Slots and under the shadow of Bangor’s famous Paul Bunyan statue.

The new arena will replace the old Bangor Auditorium, which was built in 1955 and holds about 5,000 people — but only half of them comfortably. The existing conference center was built in 1978. When the new buildings are completed, the old building will be demolished, its site turned into a parking lot.

“By building standards, the existing conference center side is old. By public standards, the auditorium side is mummified,” said Mike Dyer, director of city-owned and operated Bass Park complex, which also includes the state fairgrounds. “Bangor is finally doing what it has talked about doing for 20 years. Now, Bangor can get up to speed.”

Newest threat

Bangor getting up to speed may bode ill for Portland. Bangor’s new arena is the latest concern for the Cumberland County Civic Center. The 6,700-seat civic center, which opened in 1977 and is home to the Portland Pirates hockey team, has seen its non-hockey business drop as cities across New England have siphoned away concerts with newer buildings that have more seating capacity, efficiencies and conveniences.

In November, county voters approved a $33 million bond to renovate the civic center. Many view the bond as a way for the civic center to maintain a presence in the entertainment business.

“I think they are doing what they have to do to try and remain competitive, and it’s the only thing they can do,” said Dyer. “In a perfect world, you would go out somewhere and give yourself a little more room. But that apparently was not an option.”

The civic center renovation will not significantly increase seating capacity, but will add premium suites and special seating opportunities to patrons. It also will expand the concourse to improve concessions and rest rooms, and rebuild the loading docks and staging areas.

In the last 10 to 15 years, the largest threat to Portland has come from two cities with newer buildings, each about 100 miles away — Lowell, Mass., and Manchester, N.H.

In northern New England, the biggest player on the concert front is the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, built in 2001 with concert seating capacity of just about 12,000 people. The Verizon center is the home of the Manchester Monarchs, which competes in the American Hockey League with the Portland Pirates.

The Verizon center has snatched up many concerts that might have routed to Portland or elsewhere. With its larger seating capacity and more backstage amenities, the building offers a better concert experience for performers and fans and better money-making opportunities for promoters.

The other major player is the Tsongas Center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. It has a concert capacity of about 7,800. It opened in 1998.

Portland also competes on a lesser scale with Worcester, Mass., which has the 15,000-seat DCU Center, and Durham, N.H., home of the Whittemore Center and the University of New Hampshire. The Whittemore Center can seat about 5,500 for concerts.

The Whittemore Center has been a relatively minor player in recent years. Like Portland, it suffered when the Verizon center opened in 2001, said Carrie Barron, the building’s events manager.

Until the Verizon Wireless Arena opened in 2001, the Whittemore had been New Hampshire’s largest building, and attracted major concerts. But the Verizon center offered twice the number of seats as the Whittemore, and New Hampshire’s concert business shifted from the university town to Manchester.

UNH is getting back into the concert business — albeit with small steps, Barron said. The Avett Brothers will perform at the Whittemore in April. It’s not a major show, but it’s a big show for UNH and would be an appropriate show for Portland. The Avetts sold out the State Theatre in Portland last spring.

UNH expects to sell about 4,500 tickets for the concert. The university is working with Vermont-based concert promoter Buddy Kirschner on the Avetts show.

“This past summer, we reached out to a lot of the old promoters we used to work with to say we are ready to start doing concerts again,” Barron said. “We wanted to get the word out that we are trying to book things. Buddy called us about a month ago to talk about the Avett Brothers, and we jumped at the opportunity.”

Private management

Beginning next summer, Portland will have Bangor to contend with, as well. When construction of the new arena complete, the city of Bangor will cede operation of the arena and conference center to a private management company, Global Spectrum.

Global Spectrum contracts with municipalities to manage buildings across the country, including the Tsongas Center in Lowell. It formerly managed the Whittemore at UNH.

The county runs the civic center in Portland, and has had discussions in the past about possibly turning over the day-to-day operation to a private management company.

Already, Dyer, the Bangor facilities director, said he is fielding phone calls from promoters interested in booking the city’s new building.

“Word travels fast in this business,” he said. “We are already holding dates in 2013 for some things. We’ve lots of inquiries already. Everyone will want to play the new building that can play the new building. The key will be to see if they do well enough that they will want to come back. Any act will play anywhere where they can make money. If they cannot make money, they won’t play. It’s pretty simple.”


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