The Cumberland County Civic Center’s trustees are questioning the feasibility of a developer’s proposal to build an 8,000-seat arena in Westbrook or Portland while turning the civic center into a convention facility.
Jason Snyder was supposed to meet with the civic center’s board last week to talk about his plan, but he asked for a postponement a few days beforehand.
In a letter to Snyder, Neal Pratt, chairman of the board, posed a dozen questions that he said the trustees planned to ask at the meeting, about the cost estimates for Snyder’s arena and the financing for the project.
The letter notes that Snyder has estimated the cost of the arena at $60 million, but Pratt said that with parking facilities, utility upgrades, access roads and other additional expenses, “isn’t an arena’s more likely cost something in the range of $100 million?”
The letter also asks Snyder to outline his financing sources, provide a more detailed development plan and address environmental issues.
The civic center’s board has a task force working on a long-range plan for the 33-year-old arena. The task force expects to receive a report from its consultants in the next week or two estimating the cost and economic return for various upgrades, from premium seating to improvements to the loading dock, backstage facilities and box office.
Assuming the task force considers a renovation project acceptable, it’s expected to recommend that plan to the trustees. The board would then decide whether to put a bond proposal on the 2011 ballot in Cumberland County to pay for the project.
Pratt said Snyder has come up with his alternative “late in the game,” and the letter is intended to show that the board wants to hear his ideas and see if his numbers work.
“We certainly want to be open and available to any feasible ideas,” Pratt said Wednesday, “but we can’t let our current plans go on ad infinitum in the hope that something better comes along.”
Pratt said the trustees had intended to ask the questions at the meeting with Snyder on Sept. 15, but he asked for a postponement until October or November. With the task force expected to make a recommendation on the civic center renovations in the next few weeks, Pratt’s letter asked Snyder to provide answers by Oct. 1. Snyder said Wednesday that he will meet that target.
However, Snyder said, he feels that the task force is so far along with its work on a renovation plan that it will be difficult to persuade members to consider an alternative.
“They don’t want to hear anything about a convention center when, in fact, a convention center can be a very significant boon to a community,” he said.
Snyder said his latest cost estimate for the arena is $65 million and he thinks that converting the civic center to a convention center would cost about $30 million.
So, for $95 million, the region would have a new, state-of-the-art arena and a convention center, he said.
A renovation of the civic center, he suggested, would only delay its obsolescence by about 10 years, so the community would be asked to spend far more to replace it in another decade or so.
“I really question the value of throwing good money after bad,” he said. “It would be a mistake to move forward without understanding the other opportunity, the incredible opportunity, that’s available.”
“The devil is in the details,” Pratt said. “Is he talking about $90 to $95 million? Is that a hard number? If it isn’t, we need to have some realistic number. You’ve got to take the next step beyond somebody’s vision and say, ‘OK, what’s it going to cost, who’s going to pay for it and how are you going to pay for it?”‘
“We’re happy to listen and we remain happy to listen,” Pratt said.
Snyder said he’s not so sure, and considers himself an outsider offering an alternative to a plan favored by “the inner circle.”
The tone of Pratt’s letter backs up that sense, Snyder said. “It wasn’t a love letter.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: