A redesign, new roof and new hot water tank for the 105-year-old Portland Expo are included in Portland’s proposed capital improvement plan. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — The Portland Exposition Building has hosted rock stars, sports icons, athletic teams, U.S. presidents and asylum seekers over its 105 years, but after years of neglect the building is in desperate need of $575,000 in repairs to survive, the city manager says.

“If the Expo is going to have a future, it is imperative that improvements are made to make it attractive for prospective clients and patrons,” City Manager Jon Jennings wrote in his proposed 2021 capital improvement budget.

Maine’s Carsen Edwards goes up for a basket while being guarded by Delaware’s Doral Moore during a Dec. 31 game at the Portland Expo. Projects proposed in next year’s capital improvement plan aim to make the century-old building more hospitable for the Red Claws, who have been using it for home games and practices since 2009. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

Immediate needs at the Park Avenue building, which the city will soon rename the James A. Banks Sr. Exposition Building, are the first phase of roof repairs, estimated at $350,000; renovations, $165,000; and the replacement of a 50-year-old hot water heater and storage tank, $60,000.

Jennings has included those projects in his proposed $16 million fiscal year 2021 capital improvement budget. Additional improvements are likely to come in future capital improvement plans.

“We are looking at the Portland Expo because it has been neglected for many, many years,” Jennings told the finance committee Jan. 28.

The group is expected to meet with department heads Wednesday, Feb. 5, to go over the proposed capital improvement budget.

The overall capital improvement plan also includes $5.6 million to help make sidewalks, trails and other city properties more compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements; $3.7 million for capital improvements for Portland Public Schools; $2.4 million in vehicle and equipment, including more energy efficient plow trucks and police cruisers; and $5.1 million in public works infrastructure improvements.

At the Expo, roof repairs and new hot water tanks will go a long way to make it more comfortable for groups that use it, especially the Maine Red Claws NBA G League team, which signed a 10-year lease extension in 2015 that runs through the 2023-2024 season with an option to extend it through 2029.

The roof leaks, Jennings said, and that is impacting the Red Claws and other basketball teams playing on the court.

Because of the inefficiency of the existing hot water tank, locker rooms for the Red Claws, high schools and Sea Dogs’ opponents often can’t provide hot showers after games, he said.

The building also has structural integrity issues, lacks air conditioning, has insufficient restroom and concession spaces and does not include space for meetings or storage.

The Expo work is just one part of the city’s vision for that area of Park Avenue. Future projects could include a second sheet of ice at the Troubh Ice Arena next door to the Expo and space somewhere on the property for conventions and large meetings.

The proposed repairs and renovations and future work at the Expo is “essential to the growth of Portland as a major destination,” Jennings said.

This is not the first time talk about the building’s dire future has come up.  Close to 40 years ago, then-City Manager Tim Honey proposed selling or demolishing the Expo because its operations were causing an ongoing deficit, which came in at $89,000 in 1980, according to the Portland Evening Express.

The building was saved when former longtime Portland Board of Education member James A. Banks Sr. proposed shifting responsibility for it to the school board and making it the primary space for Portland school athletics and activities. By 1986, more than $200,000 in improvements were made to the building, including a new gym floor, locker rooms and concession areas.

The City Council Monday approved City Councilor Nick Mavodones’ request to rename the facilty the James A. Banks Sr. Exposition Building.

Banks, Mavodones said, was also on the building committees for the nearby ice area and baseball stadium and “someone who really gave his all to the city and its children.”

“I really think it fitting the building gets this name,” Mavodones said.

The 105-year-old building is thought to be the second-oldest arena in continuous operation in the United States. Over the years it has hosted numerous professional and high school basketball games and track and roller derby meets. Concert headliners there included James Brown, Dolly Parton, the Beach Boys and Queen. American sports icons Babe Ruth, Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston have made appearances at the Expo and so have Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

The building also serves as one of the city’s polling locations,  and this summer for eight weeks operated as an emergency shelter for an influx of more than 450 asylum seekers coming to Maine from the southwestern border.

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