A Gorham legislator has his sights set on a $100 million convention center to be built in Portland, preferably on the peninsula.

Bailey

Rep. Kyle Bailey, D-Gorham, who represents parts of Gorham and Scarborough, has sponsored a bill asking legislators to place a $115 million bond on November’s ballot to fund a $100 million convention center in Portland and make improvements to the Augusta Civic Center and other public venues in the state. The bill was referred to the Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs on March 10.

Bailey has not proposed a specific site for a convention center, but said he prefers that it would be on the peninsula. The exact location, he said “would be further investigated and worked out with the city and other stakeholders.”

A member of the Joint Standing Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business, Bailey said while some may wonder about the future of large events in a post-COVID world, he believes Portland needs a convention center to stay competitive after the pandemic.

“As we rebound we need to be really smart and strategic about where we want to go and how we will get there and not have this fear of not investing in our future,” Bailey said.

Portland Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Quincy Hentzel said the time to build a convention center in Portland is now.

“We don’t have 1o years to figure this out,” Hentzel said. “A lot of the available space will be gone by then.”

Hentzel said a convention center like the one Bailey is proposing is about more than hosting events. It could be an economic development tool by specifically targeting conventions in “sectors of the economy the state wants to grow.”

“It’s a great way to really showcase the state,” she said.

Portland convention center proposals have come up before, but have never caught traction.

In the late 1980s, there was an idea to convert the Civic Center (now Cross Insurance Arena) into convention space. In the mid-1990s, the idea of a convention center in Portland came up again, and in 2000, the Libra Foundation proposed building a civic center in Bayside. A plan in 2004 called for a combined arena, convention center and hotel complex at the site of the Top of the Old Port parking lot.

In 2013, the Portland Development Corporation recommended the city sell part of Congress Square Park to Rockbridge Capital to create an event center on that site. That plan was approved by the council in September 2013. The decision was contested by advocates who wanted to keep the park, and the area was eventually added to the city’s land bank after a June 2014 referendum.

The idea also came up in 2018 when the City Council’s economic development committee was asked to proceed with a feasibility and marketing analysis for a convention center.

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Most recently, Bailey’s husband, former Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, proposed a similar bill that would have asked voters to support a $150 million convention center somewhere in Portland.

The Waterstone Group, the entity behind the Rock Row development on the Portland/Westbrook line, announced in June 2020 that a convention center, with a capacity of 8,000, has been included in its master plan for the former rock quarry property.

Westbrook Economic Development Director Dan Stevenson said he is aware of Bailey’s proposal and is interested in learning more of the specifics. Stevenson sees a need for a convention center in the greater Portland area but feels that once fully built, the Rock Row site, with its collection of retail, hospitality, recreation, office and entertainment uses is the best location.

“The only place it is going to work and is ready to go is at Rock Row,” he said.

Bailey questions if Rock Row is the right spot for a convention center. Most convention centers are located in downtown areas or by airports, he said, but “I would not rule out a convention center there if that was determined to be the right site.” he said.

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