PORTLAND – Some business owners are frustrated with city government for not actively promoting renovations to the Cumberland County Civic Center.

“As it relates to the Civic Center, (city government) is asleep, deferring a pretty big asset to others,” said Jed Harris, who owns land and commercial property just steps from the arena. “If they were more proactive, you might have seen an earlier positive development.”

“I don’t hear a clear, clarion call (from city government) about the Civic Center, its largest asset,” said Daniel Steele, who owns Brian Boru, a pub on Center Street near the Civic Center.

In November, voters countywide will decide on a $33 million bond to fund renovations to the 6,726-seat complex owned by the county.

The vote comes just months after Portland’s City Council approved millions in tax breaks for another project, the Forefront at Thompson’s Point.

In recent weeks, Steele has met with more than a dozen downtown business owners to discuss the Civic Center. He said there’s broad frustration over a lack of major new development downtown and a sense that the city doesn’t engage the business community.

“It’s a feeling of running into an entrenched, old guard at a time (when) people are desperate for help,” said Steele. “The Civic Center is symptomatic of a problem. There’s a lack of awareness and a lack of desire to communicate.”

Mayor Nicholas Mavodones defended the city. He said city officials discussed Civic Center renovations with county officials and center trustees in recent weeks. He said the city won’t take part in a political campaign to promote renovations.

“The city has had a lot of engagement with members of the business community, but I don’t know if it’s been a lot around the Civic Center,” he said.

Mavodones pointed to the Forefront, a $100 million complex proposed at Thompson’s Point, as evidence of the city’s economic development efforts.

In June, the City Council approved a $31 million, 30-year tax break for the project, which will include office and meeting space, an arena for the Maine Red Claws basketball team and a music hall with seats for 1,000 to 2,000 people. The arena could accommodate up to 4,500 seats during concerts.

Mavodones said the Forefront will create jobs and give Portland a medium-size venue.

“The renovations (of the Civic Center) and the development of Thompson’s Point are both significant, and they complement each other,” he said.

But some say the city’s handling of the projects has disadvantaged the Civic Center.

One mayoral candidate, Jed Rathband, fears voters won’t back the Civic Center bond because the Forefront is moving forward with tax breaks.

“Voters are seeing this and saying, ‘Why do we need the Civic Center?’” said Rathband. “I argue we need to do both.”

Steele supports the Forefront, but said city government should give “equal shrift to both projects.”

“It needs to advocate for both. It’s hard these days to advocate for any public expenditure,” Steele said.

Rathband said the city let the debate over Civic Center renovations “languish” until developers proposed other projects.

Shipyard Brewing Co. co-owner Fred Forsley floated a plan in April to build a convention center, hotel and culinary school near Newbury Street.

“In the absence of leadership (from the city) we have seen two other proposals in direct competition (with) the Civic Center,” said Rathband. “The city has not led the discussion on what will happen to the Civic Center, and they should have.”

Jon Jennings, managing partner for the Thompson’s Point Development Co., said the Forefront won’t compete directly with the larger Civic Center.

“Thompson’s Point would never be able to attract acts that the Civic Center attracts,” said Jennings, who is also president of the Maine Red Claws.

Jennings supports the Civic Center project. “We believe that a viable and vibrant Civic Center is in the best interest of Portland and our region,” he said.

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at:

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