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Gorham Rep wants $150 million from state to build Portland convention center

Rep. Andrew McLean (D-Gorham) has proposed the Maine Legislature borrow $150 million to build a convention center in Portland, Maine. Photo courtesy Maine Legislature.

AUGUSTA – State Representative Andrew McLean (D – Gorham) wants the state of Maine to borrow $150 million to build a convention center in the city of Portland.

The proposal for the Maine Legislature to approve the borrowing is among more than $1.2 billion in proposed borrowing put forward in the first month of the new session of the Maine Legislature.

Maine’s current general fund bond debt is about $376 million, meaning the convention center borrowing of $150 million would increase the state’s general fund bond debt by about 40% by itself.

Rep. McLean, represents part of Gorham and part of Scarborough in the Maine House of Representatives and lists “law student” as his occupation on the Maine Legislature’s website. He has signed on three cosponsors to his proposal for the borrowing project: former Mayor of Portland, Rep. Michael Brennan and Rep. Michael Sylvester, both Democrats representing Portland, as well as Rep. Teresa Pierce of Falmouth.

The proposal is titled “An Act To Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue for the Construction of a Convention Center in Portland” and has been assigned the legislative document number 341.

The proposal of the text makes no mention of private investment or the city of Portland providing funds toward construction, indicating that, as the proposal sits, taxpayers from across the state would be on the hook for repaying the $150 million, plus interest, over no longer than a 10 year period.

In contrast, the city of Bangor did not rely upon state borrowing in 2011 to approve their convention center, a state-of-the-art 8,000 seat, $65 million facility that has drawn world class attractions since shortly after the Cross Insurance Center opened.

Instead, Bangor used funds dedicated to improving their downtown economy and borrowed money against other local revenue with a 30 year bond – a decision which local voters approved by a 3 to 1 margin.

But Portland has been hampered by problems with dedicating local revenues to projects such as a convention center.

In 2000 the city turned down a generous offer of financial support and acreage to build a convention center. As recently as 2018, local officials publicly worried that the city can’t afford the investment in a new convention center, likely due to strained social service budgets and significant existing debt which requires $41 million in debt service payments in fiscal year 2019 alone. As of 2017, a Moody’s financial report indicated that Portland had net direct debt of $298 million.

Just this weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a piece on how Portland’s focus on bringing large numbers of asylum seekers to the city with generous benefits is straining city resources, and last summer the Portland Press Herald ran a series of stories on rampant drug and crime problems in in one neighborhood in the city which was straining city services and budgets.

One of the biggest questions the Maine Legislature will need to grapple with if it decides to move forward and place the burden for a new $150 million convention center in Portland on the backs of taxpayers across Maine is – if Bangor could build a state-of-the-art convention center with local revenues and smart strategic planning, why should the leaders of Portland get a free pass with no local investment?

For some Bangor residents and voters across Maine who seldom travel to Portland, the legislature’s decision on LD 341 will be watched closely.

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