BANGOR, Maine — Casting aside any doubts, Bangor voters favored construction of a new $65 million arena and convention center 3-to-1 on Wednesday, a victory supporters deemed a decisive mandate for the city’s economic future.
According to unofficial results from the Bangor City Clerk’s Office, 4,107 voters cast “yes” ballots, while 1,363 residents voted “no.”
“This is truly a testament to the fact that Bangor residents wanted to have a say in their future,” said Elizabeth Sutherland, representing the Arena Yes campaign.
Sutherland and about 60 other supporters gathered Wednesday evening at the Sea Dog Restaurant to wait for results. Many cheered, shared hugs and breathed sighs of relief when the final tally was announced at about 10:30 p.m.
Wednesday’s overwhelming support should end any doubt about whether Bangor residents want a new arena, said jubilant supporter Miles Theeman.
“The people of Bangor really stepped up,” he said. “This was a vote about a new arena, but really it was a vote about a vision for Bangor.”
Bob Cimbollek, representing the opposition, said he was disappointed with the result but not with the process.
“At least 5,400 people made this decision, not just nine city councilors,” he said by phone late Wednesday. “I guess I’d rather have a mandate either way. Now they can move forward.
“But it’s not over as far as the taxpayers are concerned.”
A larger-than-expected turnout Wednesday had left both sides of the debate wondering which would benefit most from the influx of voters.
Voters began streaming into the Bangor Civic Center early Wednesday morning and traffic remained steady throughout the day, election officials said. By late afternoon Wednesday, the Bangor City Clerk’s Office had ordered more than 2,000 additional ballots printed.
City Clerk Patti Dubois initially predicted turnout in the 10 percent to 15 percent range, which would have been high, especially for a special election on a Wednesday in May.
Wednesday’s turnout of about 25 percent was a clear sign that the arena vote stirred up Bangor’s electorate.
“We had great faith in Bangor residents, but we should give kudos to the opponents who were committed to the democratic process,” Sutherland said.
Earlier this year, Cimbollek and others successfully gathered more than 2,200 signatures to ensure that Bangor voters would have their say. He said Wednesday that he’s proud of that effort.
“This was a true grass-roots effort to get this to a referendum,” he said. “But we can live
with it if this is what the people want.”
The arena debate has lasted more than decade and resulted in the current proposal — a 5,800-fixed seat arena, with a maximum capacity of 8,050, and adjoining convention center.
For supporters, $65 million represents a good bargain, particularly when none of it will come directly from taxpayers. The two revenue sources to pay for the project are the city’s share of proceeds from Hollywood Slots and a portion of the downtown tax increment financing district funds.
Hollywood Slots General Manager John Osborne praised the vote late Wednesday.
“This is a proud day for Bangor and all of Eastern Maine,” he said in a statement. “The new arena will bring new opportunities for entertainment, for business, and for attracting visitors to the region. I’m happy that the citizens of Bangor saw this and I look forward to seeing construction begin on this major component of Bangor’s plans to move forward as a destination for the region.”
Opponents, however, felt $65 million is too big a gamble and they wondered if the money might be better spent renovating existing facilities.
Marcus Baker was among those who voted with an enthusiastic yes.
“The fact that Hollywood Slots is fronting most of the bill was the selling point for me,” Baker said after casting his vote.
Andrew Webster, wary of the impact of the project on his taxes, voted no.
“The funding really isn’t there,” he said. “I just don’t see this as a good time for the arena right now.”
Another “no” voter who asked not to have his name published said his vote was more about going against the City Council’s plans than against the arena itself.
“I think the reasons that they’ve been giving for why this is good are faulty,” the man said.
City Councilors and the Greater Bangor business community have been united in support of the arena proposal as the linchpin for future economic development in the city. They also believe that a new complex, combined with events such as the American Folk Festival and the new Waterfront Concerts Series, will make Bangor an entertainment destination for the region.
As early as next week, city leaders could revisit the discussion about what happens next, but councilors already have been committed to an aggressive construction timeline. Also on the table for the city is when to hire a private management company to run the new facility once it’s built.
For a night, though, they reveled in the voters’ validation of their efforts.