The Cumberland County Civic Center’s trustees have rebuffed an invitation to resume negotiations with the Portland Pirates, eliminating the prospect of a quick resolution to the stalemate over a new lease for the American Hockey League team.
In a letter to Chris Hall, chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber, the trustees declined the chamber’s offer to host a meeting between the two sides. A copy of the letter was seen Monday by the Portland Press Herald.
Hall invited the Pirates and the trustees to meet several weeks ago. The trustees initially declined, citing the lawsuit that the team filed against the trustees in September. On Friday, the Pirates offered to drop the lawsuit if the trustees would come to the bargaining table by Dec. 3. The board rejected that offer Monday.
“The trustees do not believe that a chamber-sponsored ‘private’ meeting between representatives of the civic center and the Pirates is the appropriate forum for resolution of this matter,” said the letter from the trustees’ lawyer, David Barry of Pierce Atwood. “The judicial forum, and not the Chamber of Commerce, is the appropriate venue for resolution of the Pirates’ litigation.”
Pirates officials said they were disappointed by the trustees’ stance.
“We owe it to the people of this region, to the businesses of this region, to look ahead and resolve our differences so when the newly renovated civic center opens this winter, there’s a plan to move forward with the American League Hockey and the Pirates working together with the civic center,” said James Cohen, a partner with Verrill Dana, counsel for the Pirates.
Brian Petrovek, managing owner of the Pirates, could not be reached for comment.
The civic center and the Pirates reached a tentative agreement in April that called for a five-year lease in which the team would share in concession sales and advertising revenue for the first time.
The agreement specifically called for more negotiations, the trustees said. Those negotiations failed to produce a final deal, and in September the team filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the trustees from breaking the tentative agreement.
In their letter, the trustees cited several reasons for declining the invitation to resume negotiations, including the Pirates’ repeated rejection of their lease offer, the Pirates’ demands for further concessions, and the team’s request to discuss “the same financial issues that have already been hashed over for many months.”
The trustees also objected to the fact that the Press Herald had published a story Saturday that reported on the letter from the Pirates to the Chamber of Commerce in which the Pirates offered to drop their lawsuit. In that story, chamber CEO Hall did not comment specifically on any letter, but made general comments about urging both sides to talk.
The trustees “strongly believe that the Pirates’ invitation to return to negotiations of issues that have been fully negotiated already is not in the taxpayers’ best interest,” the letter said. “The trustees continue to believe that their final offer was consistent with the interests of Cumberland County taxpayers and the trustees’ desire to keep the Pirates in Portland.”
The trustees said the negotiations ended in August after more than 50 meetings and hundreds of written and telephone communications. The Pirates, however, contend that only one face-to-face meeting has been held since April.
“We believe that face-to-face negotiations between the parties would be a positive step,” Cohen said. “Everything on the table is resolvable.”
Without a lease to play home games at the arena in Portland, the Pirates have been playing in front of small crowds at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston. The Colisee’s majority owner is a part-owner of the Pirates.
The Pirates originally planned to play early season games in Lewiston and return to Portland when the civic center’s $34 million renovation concluded in January. The Pirates have since committed to playing the entire season in Lewiston because of the breakdown in the lease negotiations.
So far this season, the Pirates rank 28th in attendance out of 30 teams in the AHL, with an average of 2,680 fans per game, according to the league. The Colisee has the capacity for 3,737 people, and the civic center can hold close to twice as many.
Since the Pirates sued the civic center, both sides have participated in court-ordered settlement talks, which failed to resolve the dispute.
“The trustees are, quite frankly, very doubtful concerning the utility of further negotiation or mediation process, particularly when the issues appear to be the same ones that were fully and exhaustively negotiated already,” their letter said.
The trustees said the Pirates are trying to publicly pressure the civic center to negotiate, and to seek further financial concessions that the trustees aren’t willing to give, the letter said.
“The fact is that more talk will not make a bad deal better and the trustees’ position and perspective has always been quite simple and direct: They will not enter into a bad deal for the county’s taxpayers,” the letter said.
The trustees also took issue with the fact that the Pirates offered to dismiss the lawsuit “without prejudice,” a legal nuance that means the team could file another lawsuit over the same issues if it were unsatisfied with future negotiations. The trustees believe that the Pirates’ claim will ultimately be dismissed by the court, according to the letter.
Neal Pratt, chairman of the trustees, said they “worked very hard to lay out our positions clearly and accurately in the letter,” but he declined further comment.
The civic center has booked some events in the hockey team’s absence, including a concert on a night when the Pirates would have been playing.
When asked about the status of additional bookings, Pratt said the civic center’s management is pursuing additional events, but he did not provide details.
Since the completion date for the renovation remains uncertain, the civic center must book events well beyond the expected date in January.
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: