LEWISTON — After months of increasingly acrimonious lease negotiations with trustees of the Cumberland County Civic Center, the Portland Pirates said Thursday that they’re packing up and moving to Lewiston, at least through the 2013-14 American Hockey League season.
That will leave Pirates fans in parts of Greater Portland with a 40-mile ride to see their team play, and will cost the Pirates some sponsorship revenue.
The move also leaves the arena in Portland without a lead tenant, barely four months before it is due to reopen after a $34 million renovation that includes many new amenities designed for hockey fans.
Following a court-imposed silence for much of September, the two sides took off the gloves Thursday after the Pirates announced their move.
Brian Petrovek, the team’s managing owner, said fans should be “outraged” by the “ill-timed, protracted” negotiations with the trustees of the publicly owned arena, where the Pirates have played home games for 20 years.
The two sides failed to reach an agreement on a new lease for the upcoming season. The talks culminated in a proposal that would have stripped the team of its value, Petrovek said.
The head of the trustees, Neal Pratt, fired back, saying, “It’s very unfortunate that the Pirates, on their way out of town, chose to take shots at the civic center’s trustees after months and months of negotiations and results that they had control over.”
Pratt said the civic center would have lost money if the trustees had accepted the team’s terms.
“The Pirates’ wounds are self-inflicted and they were made very knowingly by very smart business people and lawyers,” Pratt said. “The situation they find themselves in is a direct result of their own decision-making.”
The civic center is in the final stages of the renovation, paid for by county taxpayers, that will add luxury boxes, club seats and other amenities that the trustees said were needed to keep the 36-year-old arena from becoming obsolete.
SOME FEEL MISLED, OTHERS SHRUG
Before the referendum on the renovation in 2011, county officials undertook an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at convincing voters in outlying areas of the county that the project would be worth such a significant investment.
On Thursday, some town officials said they felt misled by the county.
“I was somewhat astounded” by the Pirates’ departure, said Mary Fernandes, chairwoman of Casco’s selectmen. “It’s a bit shocking, especially after all the money that was spent to upgrade the building.”
Fernandes said that in 2011, many Casco residents questioned the wisdom of spending so much on a building they rarely visited.
Ann Farley, a selectwoman in Sebago, said she was disappointed by the Pirates’ decision. “Now we are going to pay dearly for the team leaving,” she said.
That doesn’t have to be the case, said Richard Feeney of Portland, a former county commissioner who retired in January after 12 years in office, and who supported the renovation.
“I don’t feel that losing the Pirates is going to be that big of a loss,” he said, because the civic center will be able to fill now-vacant dates with outside acts, including concerts.
“That, to me, is going to offset the loss of the Pirates,” he said, and the arena could attract another hockey team.
Margo Knight, a Brunswick town councilor, said, “Do I feel misled? No. My vote was cast (for the civic center bond) knowing there would be uncertainty in the future.”
LEWISTON ARENA SMALLER, OLDER
The Pirates were supposed to start playing in the upgraded arena in January, after playing home games early in the season at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.
The improvements offered an opportunity for the team to turn its first profit since Petrovek, Ron Cain and Lyman Bullard bought the team in 2000.
The lease proposal called for revenue from sales of higher-priced suites, club and loge seats to go to the team, along with a share of concession sales and a split of much of the advertising income.
With those stakes, the negotiations led to ultimatums, deadlines and the Pirates’ filing a lawsuit against the trustees.
Petrovek said the lawsuit will continue, and the team’s future will be dictated by its reception in Lewiston, the fate of the lawsuit and whether there’s a change in the stance of the trustees.
“We’ve always left the door open to the Cumberland County Civic Center and that’s not going to change,” he said Thursday at a news conference at the Colisee. “But as far as this season is concerned, we’ve just given you a commitment to play in this building, we’ve given you a commitment to embrace this community.”
The 3,737-seat Colisee is about half the size of the civic center and considerably older, dating to 1958. Most famously, the arena — known at the time as the Central Maine Youth Center — hosted the 1965 Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston heavyweight championship fight, in which the “phantom punch” knocked out the favored Liston in the first round.
The arena’s majority owner is Cain, who owns 40 percent of the Pirates, offsetting some of the sting of the move to a smaller arena and market and ensuring a cozy landlord-tenant arrangement.
OPPORTUNITIES TO FILL THE VOID
Pratt said the civic center has been approached by other teams when talks with the Pirates have appeared stuck. He said the trustees will pursue those opportunities now.
And he said the civic center will seek to line up concerts and other events for dates left open by the Pirates’ departure.
Civic center officials who could provide information on how much income those events bring in couldn’t be reached Thursday, but Pratt said they can be lucrative, particularly compared with a goal of breaking even on Pirates games.
This isn’t the first time the civic center and the Pirates have fought over lease terms or come close to parting ways. In 2010, the Pirates welcomed courting by Albany, N.Y., which had just lost its AHL team, before finally coming to an agreement with the civic center.
This year’s negotiations were complicated by the renovation, which meant the two sides couldn’t rely on past revenue and cost figures in their talks.
PARTIES DIVIDED ON REVENUE SPLIT
In April, both sides said they had reached a five-year lease deal with lower rent for the Pirates, who in return would take on a slightly larger share of the labor costs on game days.
The two sides also agreed to share concessions revenues, something Petrovek had eagerly sought in prior leases, and advertising revenue.
The deal fell apart after state liquor officials said the Pirates couldn’t get a share of alcohol sales because they don’t hold the facility’s liquor license. Subsequent proposals by the civic center to offset the loss were insufficient, Petrovek said.
Another issue involved “sub-naming rights” for parts of the arena, such as the ice rink and new luxury suites. Petrovek said an agreement to split “above-the-ice” advertising revenue meant he would share in that money, but the civic center said it had retained all naming-rights profits.
Pratt said there were other issues, but while the civic center sought only to break even on the games, the Pirates wanted more.
“The demands that the Pirates were making these last few months were too rich” and would have amounted to a subsidy of the team by the county’s taxpayers, he said.
LEASE NEGOTIATIONS LED TO DISPUTE
After the two sides traded proposals this summer, the trustees sent Petrovek a final offer in late August, giving him 48 hours to sign the lease. He refused, and the next week sued the trustees, asking a judge to enforce the terms of the agreement reached in April.
Pratt said that resolution, passed by the trustees, noted that further negotiations were needed. He also said that about an hour after that trustees meeting, he ran into Petrovek, who told him the Pirates would move ahead with selling season tickets for games at the civic center.
Pratt said he warned Petrovek that the deal wasn’t complete and any decisions the Pirates made would be at the team’s own risk.
After Petrovek filed the lawsuit this month, a judge called both sides into a settlement conference to seek a solution without a court fight. The only thing both sides agreed on was that the effort failed, and Petrovek moved quickly to announce the shift to Lewiston.
PIRATES MOVE NOT ISSUE FOR AHL
The AHL and the Phoenix Coyotes, the Pirates’ parent team in the National Hockey League, took a mostly hands-off approach to the move.
Although the Coyotes had hinted that they preferred Portland — and largely insisted on having the Pirates play at the civic center during their brief playoff run last season — a team spokesman said Thursday that it will “move on” with the shift to Lewiston.
“Clearly, it is a disruption for us,” said Brad Treliving, the Coyotes’ assistant general manager. “But it’s the hand we’re dealt and we’re going to do the best we can with it.”
Dave Anderson, commissioner of the AHL, said the league has no requirements about where teams play, other than making sure the rink has adequate quality and safety for games.
“It honestly doesn’t come as a surprise,” Anderson said of the move. He noted that under league rules, the Pirates have a right to play anywhere within 50 miles of Portland.
Fans in Lewiston, a traditional hockey city, said they look forward to watching hockey one step below the NHL level.
“This community, most of it, is 100 percent hockey over anything else in sports,” said Norm Dubois, 74, who lives in neighboring Auburn. “People will embrace it.”
As for disappointed fans who live in Portland, Cain said his team was forced into making a move.
“I feel bad for the fans in Portland,” he said, “but the trustees have drawn that line. I didn’t.”
Petrovek said that to boost attendance, the team will keep ticket prices low, including some $10 tickets for fans who buy in advance.
— Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: