The issues surrounding the Cumberland County Civic Center's potential refurbishing remind me of the problems people face when they drive piece-of-shit cars. (The metaphor isn't perfect, but let's go with it.) Picture this: your car's muffler has a hole, the tires need air every few days, and the brake shoes squeak non-stop, even when you aren't touching the pedal. When you drive down Congress Street, heads turn for all the wrong reasons. It's embarrassing to be seen behind the wheel, but the economics involved with really solving the problems are tough. You can do some of the work required to keep the car on the road yourself (wrapping the muffler hole with metallic, heat-resistant duct tape that you bought at Marden's; refurbished tires from 3G's Tire on Fox Street), but the vehicle never really gets better.
There's always something wrong, so despite being unable to afford a newer, more reliable car, you sink untold dollars into stopgap repairs, and then end up buying a black-market inspection sticker off a crusty mechanic that you met at the Dump on the Hump in Standish, anyway. What a vicious cycle.
That's what is going on with Portland's main arena. Next month county voters will be asked to approve a $33 million bond to refurbish the Cumberland County Civic Center. This is a terrible idea. County voters should say no.
When unveiling the potential refurbishing plans too the public and press last month, Neal Pratt, chairman of the Civic Center's board of trustees, compared the arena's situation with recent structural improvements made at Fenway Park. Either Pratt is smoking the good stuff, or he thinks that everyone listening to his pitch is. Fenway was a gem that needed polishing. The Civic Center is just a turd (as I have said before in these pages), and everyone knows turds cannot be polished, despite what you may have seen on Mythbusters. Are you unconvinced? Then consider this: when the Maine Red Claws basketball team opened their inaugural season, just a few years back, in 2009, they eschewed the Civic Center to play at the Expo, a building more than six decades older. Only Matthews Arena in Boston, where Northeastern plays hockey and hoops, has been in continuous use longer than the Expo among American arenas. That little fact should tell voters everything they need to know.
Proponents of the $33 million refurbishing project claim that it could be paid for without increasing taxes by shifting the $1 million a year that citizens have been paying on the county jail construction bond, a bond that has just been retired, to the Civic Center bond, but what about saving taxpayers a million clams per annum? Isn't reducing the tax burden a better idea? Just because we don't have to pay a million a year on the jail anymore doesn't mean we should turn right around and spend it someplace else. And we certainly shouldn't spend a million a year on what is essentially the architectural equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Plus, the whole project might be unnecessary. Earlier this year the Maine Red Claws announced plans for a privately funded arena on Thompson's Point. If things go according to plan (I know, that's a big if) the building, part of a larger redevelopment, should open in 2013. Also, a separate development group has announced plans for a new arena on the Westbrook-Portland line.
Until voters see what happens with both of those projects, they should save their precious tax dollars.
Rick Wormwood can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.