PORTLAND — The Cumberland County Civic Center was a premier sports and entertainment venue when it debuted in 1977 with a near-sellout performance by the rock band ZZ Top.

In its first full year of operation, the arena hosted 43 concerts, 26 family events, such as ice shows, and 71 sports events. Last year’s numbers, however, were vastly different: six concerts, 19 family events and 55 sports events. The figures reflect the changes in the entertainment world and the civic center’s place in it.

The trend convinced civic center trustees that the arena was likely to continue to slip into second-tier status as an entertainment venue unless some serious upgrades were made. Last year, county voters agreed, authorizing a $33 million bond to pay to renovate the civic center, which will turn 35 years old next month and has never had a major overhaul.

The board has picked an architect with a reputation as the leader in new arena construction and renovations, an engineering firm and, just two days ago, a construction management firm. This will allow the project to move into a more visible and active phase in the coming months, with some of the first work expected after a James Taylor concert closes out the spring season in late June.

The civic center’s board hopes the renovation will be transformative, making the arena as attractive to touring bands, ice shows and other attractions as when it first opened,

But the work is being done in times far different from the 1970s. Bands no longer go on tours that have them playing 100 cities in nearly as many days. Touring productions have more elaborate sets that require more local labor to assemble. Professional sports teams – such as the civic center’s prime tenant, the Portland Pirates hockey team – require more amenities, such as prime seats and private clubs, for season-ticket holders.

The civic center has been a workhorse for more than three decades, hosting hundreds of concerts, hockey games, basketball tournaments, religious revival meetings and local college and high school graduate ceremonies. Like many 1970s-vintage buildings, it has a utilitarian feel to it, with massive steel beams and acres of exposed concrete.

“It’s an interesting building,” said Don Dethlefs, a Colorado-based expert in arena construction and renovation who has been hired to help redesign the civic center. “The bones of the building are really quite good.”

However, that solid skeleton lies inside an exterior skin that’s been showing its age for some time:

* The arena’s electrical and plumbing systems are old and, in some cases, no longer meet code.

* The building is out of compliance with disability access laws.

* Room for concessions is tight and the range of foods and beverages offered is limited.

* The restrooms are unattractive and inadequate for handling full houses.

* There’s limited space available for merchandising and the ticketing area is behind the times.

* There’s no premium seating section, further limiting revenue options.

* Backstage areas are run-down and the loading dock and storage areas are inadequate for the more elaborate sets employed by touring acts.

Out of running for major acts?

To put the age of the civic center in perspective, consider that the act that opened the arena on March 3, 1977, was ZZ Top. Today the members of that trio are just a few years away from being eligible for Social Security, and those famous long beards have been gray for some time.

Since the civic center opened, arenas have become far more fan- and star-friendly.

In newer facilities, premium seats and club areas cater to season ticketholders. There’s a wide range of food and beverages, often featuring local restaurants and microbrews. There are enough restrooms that lines don’t snake out into the concourses during intermissions. Touring acts are given clean, comfortable dressing rooms and there’s enough room for multiple set changes.

The civic center, by contrast, has barely changed since ZZ Top took the stage.

“It hasn’t kept up with the Joneses,” Brian Petrovek, the owner of the Portland Pirates hockey team, the civic center’s prime tenant, said of his team’s home arena.

The civic center has had its detractors from the beginning, with a fierce fight about whether to approve the original $8 million bond for construction. Residents of outlying communities didn’t want to pay higher taxes for a facility they saw as being used mostly by residents of Portland and its immediate suburbs.

It eventually became an established hub of southern Maine’s entertainment scene, however, with an impressive array of acts, such as the Ice Capades, Motley Crue, Billy Joel, Aerosmith and Boston. James Taylor, who first played at the civic center in July 1977, will perform in June in the last concert before renovation work gets under way this summer.

But the concert industry has undergone changes, with acts staging fewer shows. Steve Crane, the general manager, said casinos in Connecticut have built an arena that now attracts some of the bigger acts, making it harder for arenas elsewhere in New England to land those shows.

Despite the changed landscape, the civic center’s trustees argued for the renovation bond, saying it would end up costing taxpayers more to subsidize the arena if it lost acts because it could no longer compete with arenas in Bangor and Manchester, N.H.

A 2010 study by consultants Brailsford & Dunlavey, commissioned by the civic center board, said that an unrenovated arena would lose 10 events a year by 2016 and another seven events annually by 2020. Lost revenue during that period would total $2.7 million, the report said.

“The physical deficiencies of the facility are increasingly too great to overcome,” the consultants said.

The consultants recommended the improvements that they said would keep the civic center attractive to acts and fans and keep revenue flowing. The report’s findings were the basis of the campaign for the renovation bond, which also stressed preserving jobs and providing work for contractors.

Summer start favored

Dethlefs agreed with the consultants’ finding that the civic center was salvageable but needed a lot of work.

He said his mission is to take the civic center’s austere and sometimes cold interior and warm it up a bit, while opening up the exterior to let people know that there’s actually something taking place inside.

Dethlefs, who is overseeing construction of an arena in Bangor, suggested that it’s Portland itself, rather than the civic center, that drew his interest.

“Portland’s a great town, and that’s the major attraction for us,” he said.

He said a lot of decisions on the renovation will have to be made in the next few months, although he’s put out some ideas, such as creating a club for Pirates’ season ticketholders on the Spring Street side of the arena, widening the concourses, reconfiguring restrooms, adding street-level storefronts and removing the steep “suicide stairs” on the corner of Spring and Center streets.

Final decisions on design and timelines will be made by the building committee of the civic center’s board, with the help of recommendations by Dethlefs, the engineers and the construction management firm, he said.

Dethlefs said he leans toward doing a lot of the construction work during the summer – when there’s no hockey and when concerts take place at outside venues – and working around the Pirates and other events the rest of the year.

Although that’s slower than shutting down the arena altogether, he said, it reduces the effect on residents, who otherwise would would lose entertainment options; on the Pirates; and on downtown businesses that benefit when there are events at the civic center.

“It’s just less painful,” he said.

Petrovek, who noted that the Pirates’ lease on the civic center runs out at the end of April, said he’s willing to be flexible about the construction schedule and expects to send the American Hockey League requests for home dates that work around construction and could mean playing some games in Lewiston.

“The league is aware of the situation and is willing to take a much more creative approach to the submission of dates,” he said.

Although the civic center largely builds its winter schedule around the Pirates, the building was never intended to be a hockey arena on a regular basis.

Crane noted that the original general manager resigned when a local group bought an AHL team, renamed it the Maine Mariners, and convinced the board to let it use the Portland arena as its home rink. The original manager, Crane noted, thought it was nuts to tie up more than three dozen dates a year for hockey games when that blocked out the possibility of getting more lucrative concerts and other events.

But Petrovek said he thinks his team can create a larger fan base with a more modern arena, adding that it also would benefit restaurants and hotels in the vicinity.

Outside management eyed

The changes in the arena mean a more complicated lease, noted Neal Pratt, who chairs the civic center’s board. The last contract was ironed out two years ago amid veiled threats by Petrovek to move the Pirates to Albany, N.Y., which was losing its AHL affiliate.

Now, Pratt said, the civic center and Petrovek will have to work out a deal on how to split extra revenue from amenities such as the premium seats and the ticket-holders club.

The current lease calls for the Pirates to pay a per-game rental fee, with rebates if they draw large crowds.

Revenue from concessions, often the most lucrative part of an event, stay with the civic center.

In addition to the lease, Pratt said, the renovation also probably will lead to a review of civic center management.

He said the board is happy with the management – and noted that the Brailsford & Dunlavey report praised the civic center for an efficient team that is well respected in the industry – but the renovation represents an appropriate time to review how the arena is run.

Pratt noted that the center has at least broken even most years – except during economic slumps – during a time of upheaval in the concert industry.

However, he said, a consultant could be hired to assess whether it’s best to continue with the local management or turn to an outside company to run the arena.

Bangor will turn operation of its new arena over to Global Spectrum when construction is complete in summer 2013. Global Spectrum is a national management firm, and operates buildings across the region. Mike Dyer, who runs the Bangor Auditorium for the city, said Global Spectrum has been involved in discussions about the new building and helpful in guiding construction plans.

“They bring a lot of expertise to the table, and have been extraordinarily helpful in looking at the plans,” he said.

The advantages of ceding operations to an outside firm generally involve deeper knowledge of the entertainment industry and connections within it, although Dyer admitted those advantages sometimes are overrated.

“The normal argument that people use is that they have all these connections and can bring more and better shows, but I think they themselves will admit the market drives the shows,” Dyer said.

Petrovek offered to run the civic center under a management contract a few years ago, and the board turned him down.

Petrovek is now just eager to work out a new lease and see the renovations start.

“We’ll finally feel like we have a competitive stage,” he said.


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