2014-02-21 / Community

Civic Center: Renovated and ready

First up for refurbished facility? Garden show, then high school basketball
By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer


A $33 million renovation of the Cumberland Country Civic Center will offer a new experience for the public. Changes include updated seating, including handicapped accessible rink-side seats, as well as privacy suites, which will be rented to businesses to, in part, pay for the construction bond. Visit the Post Facebook page for more photos. (Michael Kelley photo) A $33 million renovation of the Cumberland Country Civic Center will offer a new experience for the public. Changes include updated seating, including handicapped accessible rink-side seats, as well as privacy suites, which will be rented to businesses to, in part, pay for the construction bond. Visit the Post Facebook page for more photos. (Michael Kelley photo) PORTLAND — Scarborough resident Neal Pratt has waited a long time for a new and improved Cumberland County Civic Center.

Now, as a two-year, $33 million renovation plan wraps up this month, Pratt’s dream is becoming a reality.

The updated Civic Center reopened Saturday, Feb. 15 for the 24th annual Maine Home, Remodeling and Garden Show. From there the Civic Center will host the semifinal, regional final and state championship rounds of high school basketball playoffs Wednesday, Feb. 19 to Saturday, March 1, as well as concerts by the Casting Crowns, Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Darius Rucker and an appearance by the Harlem Globetrotters.


The Civic Center’s concourses have been widened to improve congestion. A new Club Room has been constructed on the Spring Street side of the building. The Club Room is but one of the new gathering spaces that have been integrated into the arena’s new design. (Michael Kelley photo) The Civic Center’s concourses have been widened to improve congestion. A new Club Room has been constructed on the Spring Street side of the building. The Club Room is but one of the new gathering spaces that have been integrated into the arena’s new design. (Michael Kelley photo) “We have events stacked up back-to-back right until the end of March,” said Roberta Wright, the Civic Center’s event services director.

An open house has been scheduled for Saturday, March 22 for the public to see the renovations free of charge.

Pratt, who represents Falmouth, Scarborough and Westbrook on the Civic Center Board of Trustees, said the renovation to the Civic Center has been a long time coming.

Investigation into improving the building began nearly 10 years ago after a project to build a new public arena/convention center and a hotel and office complex on a parking lot across the street from Lincoln Park on Congress Street fell through.

The $240 million project, Pratt said, was going to be publicly funded through an increase to the meals and lodging tax in Cumberland County. Since Maine does not permit local option taxes, a change in state law would have been needed. Although then-Gov. John Baldacci tentatively supported the idea, it failed to get the support from the Legislature.

Pratt said the trustees, who supported the project, began looking at the possibility of renovating the building, knowing that it was going to continue to worsen if no action was taken.

In 2007, Pratt set up a task force of representatives from the Cumberland County Board of Trustees, Cumberland County Commission, city of Portland and the Portland Pirates to examine the feasibility of renovation. Three years later, in 2010, the task force issued a report of its findings and recommended renovation. On Nov. 8. 2011, voters approved a $33 million bond for a new Civic Center by a 2-1 margin.

“We thought with $33 million, we could really make a huge difference,” Pratt said. “We weren’t going to get everything we wanted, but we could make it into a place that will be attractive and appealing for the next 30 years.”

The project, which broke ground in August 2012, included constructing new lobbies, expanding concourses, retrofitting arena seats, constructing new private suites, team offices, administrative offices, locker rooms and a larger ticket lobby. The project, done by Cianbro, also improved and renovated the Free Street and Spring Street entrances.

The goal of construction and renovations was to extend the life of the building, while maximizing the event schedule, improving guest experience and creating new revenue streams.

The new facility will be much easier to access for all members of the public, with the introduction of elevators and more handicapped accessible ramps and even an escalator.

Wright said ADA compliance was a “big part of the renovations.”

“We worked really hard to make it handicapped accessible, when it really wasn’t,” Wright said of the old facility. “We had a lot of success doing that, but now it is going to be a lot easier.”

The steep staircase on the corner of Spring and Center streets has been removed and replaced with a new entrance. The second floor of the entrance will hold the Port Pavilion, a space that could be used for catering for the artists who perform at the Civic Center.

“It is going to feel like a new experience for anyone who has been to the Civic Center before,” said Linda Boudreau, who represents South Portland and Cape Elizabeth on the Board of Trustees.

The arena’s 5,778 seats have been replaced and, for the first time, the arena offers handicapped accessible floorside seats, as well as loge seating and ice-side suites for individual groups.

“What we have tried to do is offer accessible seating in all areas, so if you want to be right up by the glass, we can get you there,” Wright said.

Other changes, Wright said, included flipping the box office around so it can be accessed without having to open the entire facility, premium corporate suites, a new Club Room next to a side entrance off Spring Street, as well as improved bathrooms and concession areas. The improved bathrooms include an additional 46 women’s fixtures and an additional 25 men’s fixtures, as well as the introduction of two family restrooms. There are now 76 women’s fixtures and 63 men’s fixtures. The new bathrooms and concession areas have been relocated to the ends of the concourses to alleviate the traffic congestion that came from lines for the bathrooms and concessions snaking through the concourse, making it difficult to walk through, Wright said.

“Part of the goal of the redesign was to push people to the corners for restrooms and food and beverage offerings,” Wright said.

The space under the plaza on Spring Street has been excavated to provide more space for storage, particularly the portable seating used for graduations and concerts. The locker rooms have been reconfigured and expanded and loading docks improved to allow more ease in setting up or breaking down a show.

Since March 1977, when the Civic Center opened for a ZZ Top concert, it has hosted more than 5,000 events that range from nationally acclaimed musical acts, family and children’s entertainment, 20 years of Portland Pirates hockey, local basketball playoffs, trade shows and high school graduations.

A vibrant civic center makes for a vibrant local economy, Pratt said.

“On average, the Civic Center has brought $15 million a year into the private economy, the local economy,” said Pratt, who is in his fifth term as board chairman. “It’s been a real economic engine for the area.”

There was some concern that this economic impact and the Civic Center’s ability to attract touring entertainment would dwindle if improvements were not made.

“There was a feeling that there was a danger of fading into obscurity from a competitive standpoint if we didn’t act soon,” Pratt said.

Pratt said the events at the Civic Center fit in well with the other cultural and recreational offerings in Portland, including the arts and theater scene, as well as the Portland Sea Dogs and Maine Red Claws.

“This is just another piece of that cultural experience,” he said.

The improvements were not specifically made, Pratt said, with the Portland Pirates in mind. The Pirates management, however, was supportive of the renovation plan.

“Renovations were going to happen whether we had a hockey team or not,” Pratt said. “The renovations were designed and envisioned well beyond the scope of hockey, although hockey was a big part of it.”

After a year of play at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston due to a dispute over their lease at the Civic Center, the Portland Pirates will be back at the arena next season.

Pratt, who was contacted by several other “major tenants” during the dispute, is relieved all of that is now behind him.

“We are glad the Pirates are going to be here for the next five years,” Pratt said. “It is a very favorable thing for the Civic Center and the region.”

Local schools will also have an opportunity to benefit from the new facility. As in years past, there will be an opportunity for local hockey teams to rent ice time. The Civic Center provides more than 400 hours of practice time a year for local hockey programs.

“It’s been very hard for them to get ice time,” Boudreau said of the South Portland hockey team, which practices at the arena. “It will be nice for them to have the building back up and running.”

Wright said Civic Center General Manager Steve Crane was concerned about what renovations would mean for local hockey teams.

“It was a major concern of Steve Crane, because it was going to have a big impact to high school hockey teams,” Wright said.

The first and foremost priority of the Civic Center, Pratt said, has been to provide for the Cumberland County community.

High schools and colleges will also have the opportunity to rent the facility for graduation exercises. Due to construction, last June was the first time in the last several years the Civic Center didn’t host a high school graduation.

Typically, the arena hosts graduation ceremonies for the University of Southern Maine, University of New England and Southern Maine Community College, as well as half a dozen high schools, including Scarborough.

Want to comment on this story? Login to our website at leader.mainelymediallc.com and let us know your thoughts.

Return to top