PORTLAND – The developers of the $100 million complex proposed last week for Thompson’s Point say it would provide space that other venues in the Portland area lack, filling gaps without creating a glut or sparking competition.

But The Forefront would shake up the city’s mix of concert, sporting and other venues, which has been relatively static since the Cumberland County Civic Center opened in 1977. With some elements of the project’s final design — such as the size of its music hall — yet to be decided, what the exact impact would be is unclear.

Plans for the complex call for:

A mid-sized arena with 3,500 seats for the Maine Red Claws, a professional basketball team co-owned by some of the partners in the development;

Concert seating for 4,500 in the arena;

Nearly 100,000 square feet of meeting and display space for conventions;

A separate music hall with seating for 1,000 to 2,000 people.

A 125-room hotel.

“This is a middle ground between Merrill Auditorium and the (Cumberland County) Civic Center,” said Jon Jennings, one of the managing partners of Thompson’s Point Development Co. “We don’t see ourselves as direct competition.”

Not everyone agrees.

“It will have an impact on all businesses” in the city, said Gus Tillman, general manager of the Holiday Inn By the Bay. “They’re going to compete with Merrill Auditorium and the civic center and, well, something’s got to give.”

The developers unveiled their plans last week and the reaction has been almost universally positive. For years, business leaders have said Portland needs a convention center that can attract large meetings, and studies have indicated that 100,000 square feet is the ideal size.

The Forefront’s developers said their proposal hits that “sweet spot,” with a 48,000-square-foot “events center” for sports, conventions and concerts and a similarly sized music hall that could host presentations, large meetings and shows.

The developers are also not seeking public financing, which has derailed previous convention center proposals.

If The Forefront is built, the Red Claws would move from the city-owned Portland Expo, where the NBA Development League team has played since 2009, to the events center.

Some other events might swing to the new complex as well.

The Forefront’s concert-configured events center and the music hall could each compete for shows with the city-owned Merrill Auditorium, which seats 1,900; the privately owned State Theatre, which holds 1,680; and the Expo, which in addition to sporting events sometimes hosts concerts for up to 3,000 people.

The Forefront might attract some concerts, sports events and shows that would otherwise go to the county-owned civic center, which seats 6,200 to 8,400 for concerts and about 6,700 for basketball and hockey, although The Forefront isn’t expected to have an ice rink.

It would also compete with the Holiday Inn, which currently has the most meeting space in the city — 33,000 square feet of ballrooms, meeting rooms and exhibit space spread over three floors. The Forefront would have nearly three times as much space.

But Tillman of the Holiday Inn thinks the The Forefront’s developers are mistaken to think that the larger space will necessarily draw bigger conventions.

“I don’t think they did their homework,” he said. Tillman said Portland already has sufficient space to accommodate about 90 percent of the conventions held nationally. The average convention, he said, draws slightly more than 200 people — not enough to fill even the 125-room hotel that The Forefront developers plan to build.

And conventions are just as seasonal as tourism, Tillman said. “In the winter, nobody wants to come to Maine,” he said.

Other obstacles include the lack of a signature attraction, such as an aquarium, in Portland; and that the city is an out-of-the-way location for many groups and businesses.

Not everyone sees a need for a larger concert venue, either.

Lauren Wayne at the State Theatre said she doesn’t sense a demand for shows larger than she can accommodate at the State or at Merrill, where she also sometimes books acts.

“Anything larger gets a little iffy in a city like Portland,” said Wayne, the theater’s general manager and talent buyer. “The trend of the industry is now a little bit smaller.”

Wayne said much depends on whether the developers run an open facility, where anyone — including Wayne — could book a free date, or instead work out an exclusive arrangement with a concert promoter. William J. Ryan Jr., one of The Forefront’s managing partners, said the developers consulted with promoters before deciding how large to make the events center and music hall. He said late last week that the developers were negotiating with some promoters, suggesting an exclusive arrangement.

Wayne said the State’s reputation and history — and her relationship with The Bowery Presents, the country’s largest independent promoter — should allow her to fend off new competition in the concert market.

“I’m pretty confident that we’ve established enough history in the market,” she said, adding that the State — downtown on Congress Street and dating to 1929 — is a preferable location to a new venue off the Portland peninsula.

The Forefront would affect publicly owned venues, but officials said these facilities have different priorities.

Nicole Clegg, a Portland spokeswoman, said the city views the Merrill Auditorium primarily as a home for the Portland Symphony Orchestra and for Ovations, which stages shows in the auditorium. The Expo’s chief mission, she said, is to host school athletic events such indoor track meets and basketball games.

The civic center tries to attract events that will generate economic activity, such as concerts and skating exhibitions, and is also the home ice for the Portland Pirates professional hockey team, said Steve Crane, the civic center’s general manager.

Barbara Whitten, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she’s certain the new site would attract some larger events to Portland.

For instance, the AmericaEast conference last year asked for information on hotel and facility rates so it could hold its conference basketball tournament in Portland — it is normally held in Hartford. But civic center officials said they couldn’t book the tournament because of commitments to the Portland Pirates in late February.

The Forefront’s developers said they’ve already talked to conference officials about bringing the tournament to Portland when their project is ready to host it.

A larger facility would attract other groups as well, Whitten said.

“I do believe that there are many examples of groups around the Northeast that would put us on the short list if we had a facility that could handle their business,” Whitten said, “and they would come year-round, not just in the summer.”

Larger groups hold conventions in other New England cities, Whitten said, “and how attractive is Worcester (Mass.)? How attractive is Hartford? They’re doing business and I’d like to be in the same game they’re in.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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