April 28, 2011

Builders plan event complex

A combined convention center-arena would be part of the privately funded project on Thompson's Point.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Developers, led by owners of the Maine Red Claws basketball team, are proposing to transform Thompson's Point from a hodgepodge of light industry into a $100 million commercial, sports and entertainment complex.

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A conceptual drawing shows The Forefront at Thompson's Point complex with a hotel, offices, a music hall and an event center.

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The Forefront at Thompson's Point, as the development would be called, includes a mix of offices, a hotel, a performance hall and an "event center" that would double as a convention center and sports arena.

The project would upgrade one of the key gateways to the city. Thompson's Point is one of the first places in Portland that visitors see when they arrive by car, plane or train, but it's now a collection of small utilitarian buildings, a sewage pumping station and propane facility.

The development would be financed privately, Jon Jennings, the Red Claws' president and general manager, and William J. Ryan Jr., one of the owners of the team, said Wednesday. They plan to announce the project formally this morning.

Jennings said he, Ryan and Steve Griswold, a real estate developer, have been working on the project plans for more than a year. They have obtained an option on the 30-acre parcel -- which has been on the market for $9.9 million -- briefed city, state and federal officials, lined up investors and approached banks, although they have not completed financing, Jennings said.

He said permits could be obtained by the end of this year, with demolition happening over the winter. Construction could begin in the spring, he said, with the hotel and office buildings taking about a year to complete and the event center, music hall and attached 700-car parking garage done in about 18 months.

"This is not something that we designed a couple of weeks ago," Jennings said. "This is a real proposal that we know we can accomplish."

Ryan said the developers would not seek any public financing, although they may ask for tax increment financing from the city. Such agreements usually involve the city returning some of the increased tax revenue from a project to the developer to offset part of the cost of improvements, such as upgraded sewer lines or widened roads.

Although a key use of the new facility would be as a 3,500-seat arena for the Red Claws, Ryan said the goal would be to have it in use "362 days a year -- maybe we'll take off Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter."

Indeed, Jennings said a basketball arena by itself wouldn't be financially feasible.

Ryan said studies have shown that the "sweet spot" for a convention center in the area is about 100,000 square feet. He said the combination of the 48,000-square-foot event center and the music hall -- which could be used by conventioneers for speeches and presentations -- totals slightly more than 90,000 square feet.

The seats for the arena would retract into the walls, he said, providing a large, flat open space for trade shows. With the seats extended and seating added, the facility could hold as many as 4,500 for a concert, he said.

The hotel would likely be used primarily for conventions, and Jennings said enough tenants have expressed interest to fill at least one of the office buildings.

A key feature, he said, is the transportation links to the site. The Portland International Jetport is nearby, with planes flying low past Thompson's Point as they land.

Interstate 295 and the Fore River Parkway are also adjacent and link to the site, and the Portland Transportation Center, which is served by buses and Amtrak's Downeaster service to Boston, is next to the property.

Reaction to the proposal was almost universally positive, mostly because the developers aren't seeking public financing, which has sunk other convention center proposals for decades.

(Continued on page 2)

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