PORTLAND — Cumberland County Civic Center trustees and the Portland Pirates have made little progress on negotiating a lease extension in the week since reports surfaced that the hockey team might be considering a move to Albany, N.Y.
”I think, frankly, the issues are the economic realities both parties face right now,” said Neal Pratt, chairman of the civic center’s board of trustees. ”We’re continuing to try and hammer out the details. We’re both working as hard as we can to try and keep the Pirates here.”
Rumors swirled last week after an Albany newspaper reported the American Hockey League franchise was exploring a move that would bring it closer to its parent team, the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League.
Pirates CEO and part-owner Brian Petrovek called a news conference after the report to reiterate that his focus ”is on a deal with the Cumberland County Civic Center.” He was unavailable for comment late Thursday afternoon.
The drama moved into the political arena this week when Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter to the Sabres urging them to move the Pirates to Albany. Albany’s AHL franchise, the River Rats, is departing for North Carolina at the end of this season.
”We recognize, especially when a U.S. senator weighs in, that this is not a bluff,” Pratt said. ”I recognize (Albany) is a realistic option for (the Pirates. I think their preference is to be in Portland. They’re trying to work out a business model.
”Hopefully there’s common ground and collectively we can pursue a renovation in a way that makes sense.”
Renovations to the 32-year-old civic center seem to be the sticking point.
Trustees hired a Washington, D.C., consulting firm in December to conduct an economic feasibility study for renovations, and have targeted 2012 for starting the project.
”The Pirates have invested here, in a very effective way. I think they love this area and are committed to it,” Pratt said. ”What renovations remain the question. The Pirates have business realities, I recognize. We have business realities on behalf of the taxpayer.”
The Pirates play as many as 40 games at the civic center during the regular season. They pay $2,500 per home game in the current lease, with rebates that increase when attendance exceeds certain levels.
Godfrey Wood, former president of the Pirates and now CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, said the organization wants the team to stay in town, citing an economic impact that goes beyond the civic center.
”Think of the thousands of thousands who come here to go to our games, eat at our restaurants, maybe stay at our hotels,” he said. ”They buy goods, services. I don’t know how you can measure that. But it’s huge.”
In his letter to Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn, Sen. Schumer said, ”I write today to wholeheartedly endorse an opportunity for the Portland Pirates to move to Albany, N.Y. This exciting prospect would have the Portland Pirates assume the place of the departing AHL team.”
Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe snapped back.
”It is outrageous that Senator Schumer is attempting to take the beloved Portland Pirates away from Maine, especially while contract negotiations are still under way between the team owners and the civic center,” Collins said. ”Portland has been home to the Pirates since 1993, and the team enjoys strong support from its many devoted fans in the Greater Portland community and across the state.”
”The Portland Pirates are a tremendous economic asset to the region and part of the fabric of the Greater Portland community,” Snowe said. ”In fact, the sport of hockey always has and always will be an integral part of our state’s heritage. Mainers across the state are proud of the Portland Pirates, and it’s vital their home remains in Maine.”
A spokesman for the Sabres said the organization had no comment. He directed inquiries to Petrovek.
”We value hockey in this building,” said Steve Crane, general manager of the civic center. ”We’ve busted our butts to work with the Pirates day in and day out. We really give it a good effort. And we’d certainly like to see them stay in Portland and in this building.”
Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at: