October 9, 2010

Civic center panel: Overhaul 'only way to go'

Consultants find upgrading the arena more cost-effective than replacing it.

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

PORTLAND - The 33-year-old Cumberland County Civic Center needs new premium seating and upgrades to most other parts of the arena, a task force said Friday in recommending a renovation that could cost between $27 million and $29 million.

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A proposal adopted unanimously by a Cumberland County Civic Center task force recommends improving the arena’s seating by adding small luxury boxes and a section with larger “club seats”; upgrading the Portland Pirates locker room; and adding a new kitchen for concessions. Price tag: $27 million to $29 million.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The proposal, adopted unanimously by the panel, will now be sent to the full civic center board of trustees, which will decide whether to move ahead. If so, the trustees must develop a more detailed cost estimate and determine how to pay for the renovation -- probably relying mostly on a county bond that would need to be approved by voters in November 2011.

The full board is expected to take up the proposal either later this month or in November.

The task force has been working on renovation plans for three years, most recently with consultants from Brailsford & Dunlavey and The Goldwater Group to determine what the southern Maine market needs for an arena and whether an overhaul of the civic center makes economic sense.

The report said that the civic center is considered an attractive destination and Portland is seen as a healthy market for touring acts.

However, backstage facilities, from the loading dock to dressing rooms, are seen as deficient and the lack of premium seats inhibits revenue increases, particularly for the prime tenant, the Portland Pirates hockey team.

In addition, concession offerings and restrooms are considered insufficient, as is the box office.

The renovation in the consultants' report would address those concerns with loge boxes, essentially small, open luxury boxes with a handful of seats, a small refrigerator and access to a hospitality area; a section with larger, more comfortable "club seats"; a new kitchen; a more efficient and larger box office; an upgrade for the Pirates' locker room; and improvements to production, loading dock and staging areas.

The task force followed the consultants' recommendation in rejecting two other options that had been studied: a less extensive renovation that omits the premium seats and would cost about $3 million less, and an option that includes all of the upgrades in the approach that was approved and also adds seats at a cost of about $5 million more.

Bobby Goldwater, one of the consultants, said the least expensive option wouldn't provide as much revenue because of the lack of premium seating, while tour promoters interviewed for the report indicated that the additional seats in the most expensive proposal wouldn't necessarily draw more acts.

"To add more seats, we don't see that as going to provide a great return," he said. "The country is littered with arenas that were built too big or do not fit their market."

The civic center seats about 6,700 for hockey games and about 7,500 for most concerts. The consultants said it would be difficult to add more than about 1,000 fixed seats without major reconstruction of the arena.

Jason A. Snyder, a developer with property along the Portland-Westbrook city line, has proposed building a new arena on his property and converting the civic center to a convention center. Snyder was supposed to discuss his plans with the civic center board last month, but canceled a few days before the scheduled meeting.

Neal Pratt, the chairman of the civic center's board and head of the task force, said he hasn't been able to work out a new meeting time with Snyder and feels the board needs to move ahead with its plans in the meantime.

The consultants' report said that if nothing is done, the civic center will soon begin to lose touring acts and revenue.

An economic analysis said the arena, which made just $1,000 in 2008-09, would lose $252,000 in 2016 if no upgrades are done and acts begin to drop Portland from their tours.

(Continued on page 2)

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