PORTLAND – Cumberland County voters are going to be asked to approve borrowing $28 million to renovate the 34-year-old Cumberland County Civic Center.

The spending measure will be appear on the ballot in November in the form of a bond referendum question, provided that a process that is about to get under way follows its anticipated course.

“My expectation is that we are heading toward a fall referendum on the civic center renovation project, and right now a majority of (county) commissioners support the project,” said Neal Pratt, chairman of the civic center board of trustees.

The board announced Wednesday that it has selected Portland-based architectural firm SMRT to develop a conceptual architectural and engineering design plan for renovating the arena.

County Manager Peter Crichton said the cost of retaining SMRT has to be negotiated. He said county commissioners — a separate entity from the trustees — have already authorized spending up to $200,000 from their capital budget to cover the expense.

That means that SMRT will develop the renovation plan in conjunction with the county’s Building Committee before presenting it to the three-member board of commissioners for consideration.

Crichton said commissioners will meet in late July or early August and vote on whether to authorize borrowing an estimated $28 million for the renovation.

The estimated price tag is based on a study done last year by a Washington, D.C.-based facilities consulting firm, Brailsford and Dunlavey, that evaluated the cost of modernizing the aging arena.

County officials say an upgrade is needed if the county wants to keep the Portland Pirates, the city’s American Hockey League franchise, as well as attract high-end concerts and performances.

The board of trustees oversees operations at the civic center, while county commissioners control the county’s purse strings.

“We are working collaboratively on this with the trustees,” Crichton said.

A poll of the three commissioners Thursday revealed that a majority will support the renovation option. Only Susan Witonis said she will oppose the project.

“I’m not in favor of renovation due to the economy,” she said. “People are losing their jobs. I feel I can’t ask taxpayers in this economy to support spending $28 million.”

Witonis represents 15 of Cumberland County’s rural communities, stretching from Harpswell and Brunswick to Naples and Harrison.

Commissioners Richard Feeney of South Portland and Jim Cloutier of Portland say they will vote to authorize the bond referendum.

“I am enthusiastically supportive of this renovation,” Feeney said. “I feel that it is long overdue. It’s not just a Portland Civic Center, it benefits the entire region.”

Feeney said he also feels more comfortable asking taxpayers to support the project because the county paid off its debt on the Cumberland County Jail last month.

He said he’d like to allocate part of the $2.1 million a year the county had been spending on the jail debt to reducing the tax impact of the renovation.

A renovation may include new club seating, modernized bathrooms and major improvements to the so-called “back house operations,” the loading docks and areas where concert crews unload or pack equipment.

Feeney said some performers won’t come to Portland because the lack of loading space causes time delays, which in turn cost promoters money.

Both Feeney and Pratt say that after several years of study, a consensus has developed that the civic center should stay in downtown Portland, in its present location between Free and Spring streets.

A private developer’s plan last fall to build an 8,000-seat arena in Westbrook or Portland while making the civic center a convention facility never gained traction.

“When you look back at this facility, the civic center has served us well,” Feeney said.

Pratt noted that since the arena opened more than three decades ago, more than 18 million people have attended more than 5,000 events at the venue.

“It has been a tremendous asset to this region,” Pratt said. “Now, we know we can fix it and make it economically viable.”

Doing nothing, he said, would allow the building to fade into obsolescence.

“It’s going to cost taxpayers a lot of money if we do nothing,” Pratt said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]