PORTLAND — A vote in November on renovations to the Cumberland County Civic Center could determine whether the Portland Pirates stay here or leave town.

On Wednesday, the civic center’s trustees recommended a bond of as much as $33 million to renovate the 34-year-old arena in downtown Portland. That recommendation needs approval from the county commissioners Monday to go on the ballot.

Pirates owner Brian Petrovek said he will await the results of the bond referendum before agreeing to extend the American Hockey League team’s stay in Portland. The team’s current lease with the civic center expires in April.

Petrovek and the trustees announced Wednesday that the Pirates had agreed — pending the bond’s passage — to extend their lease two years, to 2014, and begin negotiations for an additional eight-year extension.

Although Petrovek wouldn’t address the possibility directly, the deal leaves the option for the team to leave if the bond fails. The Pirates considered moving to Albany, N.Y., as recently as last year.

“I’m not contemplating a plan B,” Petrovek said when asked about looking at other cities. “I don’t think like that. I expect this to pass.”

Neal Pratt, chairman of the trustees, said, “Hopefully, we can convince the public about these renovations, and we can reach a relatively long-term deal that makes financial sense for both (the Pirates’) business and the taxpayers.”

Said Petrovek: “We’ve basically got 90 days to win an election.”

The trustees voted 6-2 to ask for the $33 million bond, over $30 million and $32 million proposals from the civic center’s building committee. A $33 million bond would likely mean a property-tax increase of about $5 per year for a $200,000 home.

The project wouldn’t necessarily cost $33 million, but the trustees chose a “very conservative” number in case of a “worst-case scenario,” said Joe Bruno, a building committee member who recommended the $30 million bond.

One of the most conservative assumptions revolves around the civic center’s reserve fund, which is used for small improvements and upgrades. Under the $33 million plan, the reserve fund would start with $200,000 per year, and increase over the bond’s 30 years, peaking at $750,000 per year.

Only three times in the last 18 years has the civic center spent more than $100,000 from its reserve fund. And the civic center shouldn’t need any reserve funds in the first few years after the renovation because it should be in tip-top shape, Pratt said.

“That’s just one area where we’ve made a conservative assumption,” Pratt said. “Our goal, as trustees and cost-controllers, will be to complete the renovations without reaching that $33 million number.”

The proposed renovations include improving the restrooms, loading docks and facade, making the civic venter handicapped-accessible, increasing the number of concessions, making electrical upgrades and expanding the concourse to make walking around easier.

The renovations would also add a Pirates Club, which could be used for event space and high-end concessions and generate extra revenue.

The three county commissioners are likely to approve the bond when they meet on Monday; two have already expressed support for the project.

The expectation is that the renovations would significantly increase revenue because of additional concessions and advertisement space, the Pirates Club’s event space, a $1 facility surcharge on tickets, and a modern building that will attract more events.

A consultant’s projection said the civic center should break even in the first year after renovations and earn upward of $600,000 per year by 2024. It has never made a profit of more than $202,000 in its 34-year history.

The civic center lost about $137,000 last year but has made money in six of the past eight years, according to county financial documents. Those numbers don’t include about $736,000 that the county has spent on civic center capital improvements during that period.

Although the poor economy makes the renovation a tough sell to voters, the trustees and commissioners will likely argue that there is a cost to doing nothing.

As the building deteriorates, it becomes less attractive as a venue for audiences and for promoters who book events, said the project architect, Paul Stevens.

Others have pointed to another hurdle: The Forefront at Thompson’s Point, a proposed $100 million project with an arena, a convention center and a music hall.

That facility would fill a different role from the civic center, Pratt said. It would be a smaller venue, with less capacity than the civic center and no ice rink.

And, Pratt said, while the civic center charges little for graduations and other community events because it’s a public building, The Forefront, as a for-profit endeavor, likely couldn’t do that.

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or at:
[email protected]ssherald.com