A citizen group seeking to convert the former Mathews Brothers Spring Street showroom into a multi-use event center asked the city March 2 to buy the building and fund a $1.1 million basic renovation.

The request drew dozens of residents of Belfast and neighboring towns — both proponents and opponents of the project — logging more than two hours of public comment at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

The Council also heard that another building that had been ruled out in past efforts to bring a performing arts venue to Belfast might now be available.

Prior to the meeting, Scootch Pankonin, a representative of the Belfast Civic Center Committee, as the group is known, spoke with VillageSoup about the plan.

The group had started with figures from a feasibility study commissioned by the city last year, and attempted to scale back the overall cost, she said. The feasibility study projected the total cost of renovating the 29,000 square foot building at $6 million to $7 million. Pankonin said BCCC is proposing a $4 million to $5 million package.

The price includes the cost of the building, currently listed at $1.3 million, though Pankonin noted that figure could change based on any eventual negotiations between the city and the building owner, Mathews Brothers.

On top of the projected $2.4 million to buy and renovate the building, the group asked the city to create a $100,000 contingency fund. Pankonin said restrictions on the use of the fund would be hashed out in whatever management agreement is struck between the city and BCCC.

The fund, she said, could potentially be used to cover unforeseen project costs, to pay a stipend for an interim project manager during the initial renovations, or to pay salary and services related to program development and marketing. The money might be especially needed during a second phase of construction after the facility opens, she said, at which time the number of events that could be held at the Civic Center would be limited by the ongoing renovations.

The BCCC proposal would have the city negotiate with Mathews Brothers to buy the building, then lease it back to BCCC for $1 annually. The city would then fund a $1.1 million basic renovation. Pankonin said BCCC had hoped to keep the initial renovations under $500,000 but later found that the cost of air conditioning, ventilation and several other infrastructural components would be more than anticipated.

BCCC plans to raise $2.4 million to fund additional renovations and cover operating costs.

The group hopes to open the doors of the Civic Center in January of 2011. At that point, Pankonin said, the building could host meetings, conventions, weddings, trade shows and civic and cultural events.

“What’s easier to say, perhaps, is what [the initial renovation] does not include. The bigger central space,” she said. “The amphitheater.”

The central theater space — envisioned in the city-commissioned feasibility study as a 400-seat theater that could be reconfigured to allow for seating in the round — was the central feature of what was originally conceived of as a performing arts venue. The city committee formed to study the prospects for an events center ultimately expanded the scope of the proposed venue to include a wider variety of uses.

When the city abandoned the project late last year, the Council appeared willing to contribute to the creation of a venue for large events but wanted to see an outside group take the lead. BCCC was formed in response to the Council’s conditional support.

On the prospects of fundraising during an economic recession, Pankonin said it was hard to know since the BCCC effort would be the first major capital campaign in the area since the economy collapsed. The amount of money the group would be looking to raise is less than what was sought in campaigns by the Waldo County YMCA and the University of Maine Hutchinson Center, and Pankonin noted that the financial backing of the city would allow BCCC to leverage funding that the group could not otherwise get.

“There’s several steps in the process, and I don’t think there will be a decision [Tuesday] night,” she said prior to the meeting, “unless that decision is ‘no.'”

On Tuesday, the Council heard two hours of testimony from more than 20 residents and interested parties. While a number of residents argued that the taxpayers should not risk depleting the city’s surplus during these uncertain economic times, others argued that the cost of doing nothing — proponents have pitched the venue as a catalyst for economic development — would be greater in the long run.

Belfast resident and member of the city’s comprehensive planning committee Joe Stearns argued that while the $3.7 million city surplus might seem large enough to accommodate the BCCC request, other factors needed to be considered.

Stearns pointed to the gap months of July, August and Sept., when the fiscal year has started but the city has yet to receive property tax revenues. During this time, he argued, adding the expense requested by BCCC to the regular expenses of the school district and wages and benefits for city employees would overdraw the city’s general fund by more than $1 million.

“If you want to buy this property and you want to enter into this $1 million Phase 1, you don’t have the bucks,” he said.

Perry’s Nut House owner George Darling presented an exaggerated scenario in which the city would meet the parking standards required of private businesses by seizing neighboring buildings by eminent domain, thereby incurring demolition costs and losing tax revenues. These measures, he estimated, would cost $17 million over five years.

“See, I can play with figures too,” he said, “and I can make them say what I want them to say.”

Two former city councilors, Cathy Heberer and Larry Theye returned to City Hall Tuesday to weigh in on the proposed venue. Theye revisited the roots of the current effort, when he was on the Council and the city was considering the poor condition of the former railroad building that serves as a home to the Belfast Maskers.

“We’ve gone from a search for a space for an identified purpose to a search for a purpose for an identified space,” he said. Theye also pointed to the $1.5 million in cuts faced by Regional School Unit 20, saying it would not be appropriate to spend more than $2 million on “entertainment opportunities” for adults, when educational opportunities for students are facing cuts.

Heberer voiced her confidence in the representative form of government, saying she trusts the city’s representatives on the Council to do the best for Belfast. The comment appeared to be a response to calls by several other speakers for a referendum on the proposed venue.

Lloyd Wentworth was one of several residents who argued that the proposed venue would take business away from existing private events facilities. Wentworth owns and operates the Wentworth Event Center on Searsport Avenue. His venue, which includes a 300-seat event space, could meet all the needs assumed in the BCC proposal, he said.

Speaking after the meeting, Ruth Gelsinger, Advisory Chair of BCCC said the Civic Center Committee had carefully considered the niche of the new venue and determined that, with the exception of Erikson Hall at Point Lookout Resort and Conference Center in Northport, there is an absence of venues in the area with the capacity to host gatherings in the 300 to 600-seat range.

“We have no desire to steal business from people,” she said. “If we’re at the same level as them, it makes our job to be economically sustainable all the harder for us.”

Gelsinger addressed the council Tuesday night, speaking of the history of the project and the projected economic impact of the Civic Center. Beyond the potential draw from surrounding towns, Gelsinger asked the Council to consider the effect of Belfast residents traveling to neighboring service centers. “The Civic Center promises to reverse this flow of traffic,” she said.

Pankonin addressed the Council briefly Tuesday night in an attempt to explain the source of BCCC projections that every dollar spent at the Civic Center would generate an additional $7 in the community. This “multiplier effect” was cited in the city-commissioned feasibility study. Gelsinger said it was a widely used statistic that had been borne out in other communities.

“If you talk to communities that have done this ten years ago, they will say that these are the figures they relied on and it happened, but they can’t say how,” she said.

Several twenty and thirty-something-year-old residents painted a picture of Belfast as a city with a growing number of young residents active in the arts.

“Young people are moving here,” said Kristin Burkholder of Northport, who works and performs as a singer and actor in Belfast. “We all want stuff to do. We want reasons to invest in this area and reasons to stay here.”

City councilors took up some of the concerns raised by residents and raised other questions of their own.

Councilor Roger Lee asked Gelsinger to provide the Council with a comparison of similarly-sized venues in the area.

Councilor Lewis Baker raised several technical concerns about the group’s proposal, including whether handicap accessibility and Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) code for snow load on the roof were addressed, and whether the foundation slab was insulated to prevent a potentially major source of heat loss. Baker also questioned the per-square-foot renovation estimate of $50 to $150. Baker questioned why the range was so wide.

“The public needs to have a very good idea of the cost,” he said. “When you do a range, you have to go to the upper end of that range.”

Gelsinger said she would need to consult with the advising architect, Michael Hogan. The Council thought it would be helpful to have Hogan appear in person to field questions on the technical specifications of the building.

Councilor Marina Delune dropped somewhat of a bombshell at the end of the meeting when she announced that she had spoken to a representative of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped to ask if the organization would consider selling their Church Street building. Delune said she was told the board of directors would be “interested in entering into a discussion with the city for the purchase of [the building].”

NTWH, located in the former Crosby School, contains a 450-seat theater and a 100-seat secondary performance space. The building was considered in earlier efforts to locate a performing arts venue to Belfast, but was ruled out as unavailable. The Mathews Brothers building has also been regarded as more flexible in its potential uses.

The Council recessed until Thursday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. and proposed, but did not confirm, a work session devoted to the Civic Center proposal on Monday, March 8.