The Cumberland County Civic Center board of trustees is wise to sharpen its pencils and reduce the cost of its proposed $33 million bond issue before taking it to referendum in November. In this tough economy, every expenditure will be scrutinized, and an overly lavish proposal is not likely to be viewed favorably.

But as the plan moves forward, it’s important that the trustees make it clear to the voters that there is more than just the price of the project at stake here: This vote will also be about whether the county should stay in the entertainment business, and all sides of the debate should acknowledge that.

As the project’s architect, Paul Stevens, said last week, the cost of doing nothing at the outmoded civic center is not nothing. The 35-year-old building is in need of improvements to keep its anchor tenant, the Portland Pirates American Hockey League team, and to attract concerts and other events.

Failing to upgrade now will mean fewer attractions that draw fewer fans and a steady decline of the building. The status quo will not hold.

But county officials should also acknowledge that the voters may not want to keep running an aging entertainment venue even if it is spruced up.

While the referendum is debated, a $100 million hotel, convention center and performance complex that includes a home for the Maine Red Claws basketball team will be going through the city of Portland’s planning process. Aside from a hefty property tax break, the developers are not asking for any public money and are accepting all the risk if the project does not succeed.

The size and configurations of the county and private facilities don’t overlap, and both could operate successfully at the same time, but voters have a right to question why the Forefront at Thompson Point project can be financed with private money while the civic center needs taxpayer funds for what has been described as a temporary fix.

Voters will also ask why the two projects could not have been combined so that the private developers and county could cooperate and build state-of-the-art facilities jointly.

That won’t be on the ballot in November, however. Instead voters will be asked to renovate the civic center, and they should fully understand what it would mean if they were to say “no.”