A group seeking to bring a multi-purpose event center to Belfast got the backing of the Belfast City Council Feb. 2, for fundraising purposes. But the Council stopped short of pledging financial or organizational support.

Representatives of the Belfast Civic Center Advisory Committee — a citizen group that has picked up on previous city-sponsored efforts to bring an events facility to Belfast — have been eyeing the former Mathews Bros. showroom on Spring Street since late 2009. BCCAC is relatively new, but the group dates its roots to 1982. BCCAC Chairwoman Ruth Gelsinger was involved with previous efforts to revive the Belfast Opera House and on Tuesday, she told the City Council a nonprofit that was set up for the Opera House could be modified to suit the group’s new mission.

Last year, a city-commissioned feasibility study concluded that an events facility would benefit the local economy. The study concluded that the Mathews Bros. showroom was the best location. The report projected a full renovation of the building would cost $6 million, but advocates of the project have stressed that a usable facility could be opened for much less. The Council subsequently decided that an outside organization should take the lead and shoulder some of the cost of the project.

“It’s exactly what I hoped would happen,” said Councilor Roger Lee after hearing a brief presentation by Gelsinger. “But you don’t need our authorization,” he said. Lee said the city should be backing the project financially, but he said, “I don’t want to run a civic center out of City Hall.”

Most of the Council appeared to agree. “I don’t want the city to run this [event center],” said Councilor Eric Sanders, “but I think we should admit that it exists.”

Councilor Mike Hurley described the opening of an events facility as “critical” to the city’s economic development prospects.

Earlier in the meeting, former Farnsworth Museum Chief Curator Suzette McAvoy had addressed the Council, connecting the revitalization of downtown Rockland with the Farnsworth’s expansion to Main Street, and Sanders picked up on the theme. “It’s obviously successful for the economic development of a town nearby us,” he said.

But Councilor Lewis Baker balked. “It’s ironic that six years ago at a public hearing about the ‘large store’ issue, I made a comment about what a great job Rockland had done and I was severely criticized. Now you can’t go to a meeting without hearing what a great town Rockland is,” he said. “I guess I was ahead of my time.”

Baker asked Gelsinger if she expected to ask the city for the $27,750 to fund the executive director’s salary. “We don’t know,” Gelsinger said. Baker cast the lone dissenting vote against recognizing the group, saying he didn’t think the other councilors would put future city-funded financial backing of the project out to a popular vote, as he would like to do.

Hurley responded, “During the election [the event center] was hung around our neck and that was the number-one complaint people had. My number-one issue was economic development, and I wasn’t kidding. As far as I’m concerned, we had an election.”

Mayor Walter Ash described the project as “back at square one” after the city spent $15,000 on a feasibility study. “Why beat a dead horse?” he said. “I don’t know why we should keep throwing money at it.”

Lee said the feasibility study was the reason the volunteers are now involved. The study said it would cost $6 million to renovate the Mathews Bros. building; now volunteers are offering to do it for less, he said, “and you’re criticizing it?”

Several other residents spoke in support of the event center in its current form, including Charlie Gray, who said, “If there’s a partnership between the town as an organization and the citizens as an organization then we can get things done. And that’s the only way it can happen.”

Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce Director Janet Dutson threw her support to the project, saying the chamber had recently fielded calls from several large organizations looking for a place to hold an event. One of those, the Maine Farmers Market Convention, held its annual event at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center at the end of January.

On Jan. 15 BCCAC applied for a $5,100 grant from the Maine Community Foundation, with the city of Belfast as fiscal sponsor. As part of the application, BCCAC submitted a $64,000, six-month budget, which included a $27,750 salary for the executive director, $15,000 for grant writing, and $6,000 for rent.

At the Council meeting, City Manager Joe Slocum addressed a line on the application reading, “It is anticipated that the city of Belfast will purchase real estate to establish an events center, fund Phase 1 renovation, and underwrite part of the annual operating costs.” Slocum said he hadn’t read the application before he signed it, but had sent a letter to MCF after the fact to say that the city had not made a decision yet.

As fiscal sponsor, the city would be responsible for paying out the grant receipts. City Treasurer Rickie LeSan said it’s not common for the city to serve as fiscal sponsor; the city has acted as a go-between for other fundraising efforts, including donations to the footbridge and fundraising done by the poet laureate.