Portland officials and business leaders say the Cumberland County Civic Center’s trustees should reconsider their rejection of an offer to resume negotiations for a new lease with the Portland Pirates.
Chris Hall, head of the Portland Regional Chamber, wrote to the trustees and Pirates officials last week, urging them to renew negotiations, which ended in September when the team filed a lawsuit seeking to enforce the terms of a tentative agreement that the two sides reached in April.
The Pirates accepted Hall’s offer and said they would drop their lawsuit if the trustees agreed to new talks. But the trustees, who say the agreement in April only pointed out where more negotiations were needed, turned Hall down. They said dozens of emailed proposals between the two sides since April hadn’t produced any progress.
The Pirates are playing this season’s home games in Lewiston, where their average attendance is 2,680, down from 4,450 last season in Portland. Their attendance ranks 28th in the 30-team American Hockey League.
Meanwhile, the civic center has started booking events on dates when the Pirates would have played, after the $34 million renovation of the arena is completed in late January or early February.
The recent developments indicate that the civic center, which has engaged in several contentious negotiations with its lead tenant in recent years, may be finished with the Pirates, even if local leaders hope that isn’t the case.
“It seems to me the civic center is throwing the baby out with the bath water,” said Bill Becker, president of the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, part of the Portland Regional Chamber. “The Pirates and the civic center campaigned side-by-side to get the (renovation) bond approved and we’d like to see their partnership continue.”
POSSIBILITIES FOR CITY, TEAM
Reviving that partnership faces some significant hurdles.
While the civic center books new events, it has been contacted by representatives of other hockey leagues about the possibility of moving a team to Portland for the 2014-15 season, said Neal Pratt, chairman of the trustees.
Pratt would not identify the leagues, but the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League are likely possibilities, based on geography.
Calls to the American Hockey League were not returned Wednesday. Officials of the East Coast Hockey League could not be reached for comment.
Another AHL team could come to Portland only if the Pirates moved out of the area, because the Pirates hold the territorial rights to any AHL franchise for Portland and locations within a 50-mile radius.
Brian Petrovek, managing owner of the Pirates, would not comment when asked if the team might leave Maine after this season.
“The civic center would be gambling with the taxpayers’ money by assuming that by freezing out one hockey team, another will arrive,” said Jim Cohen, one of the Pirates’ lawyers.
Cohen said the team is considering staying in Lewiston and exploring the possibility of building an arena in Saco. But he said Portland remains the Pirates’ top choice for a long-term home.
He noted that the team accepted the chamber’s call for new talks and even offered to drop the lawsuit in exchange, although Pratt said the trustees view that offer as worthless because the team could simply refile the lawsuit if new negotiations failed.
The Pirates and the trustees agree that there are only two significant areas of disagreement: over whether the civic center needs to share revenue from “sub-naming rights,” such as a luxury suite named for a corporate tenant, and the formula for splitting concession revenues.
Both sides agreed that the Pirates would get 65 percent of the net take from food and beverage sales at hockey games, until state authorities said the Pirates could not share in the revenue from alcohol because the team is not the liquor licensee for the arena.
The two sides have since been unable to agree on a formula to split sales of food and non-alcoholic beverages.
“When you don’t sit down face-to-face, it’s a lot harder to understand what’s going on beyond what’s on a piece of paper,” Cohen said.
But Pratt said dozens of emails in the summer and court-ordered mediation this fall failed to resolve the issues.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan also has encouraged the Pirates and trustees to start talking again, but noted that the trustees – who are appointed by the Cumberland County commissioners – can’t be compelled to do anything.
Although he said he plans to call the trustees again to see what might get them back to the table, “I don’t know what that wedge point is right now.”
NEUTRALITY MAY NOT ENDURE
Becker said the executive committee of the Portland Community Chamber will meet Monday to discuss its next steps. He said the panel will probably gather economic data to show what the impact on businesses would be if Portland lost the Pirates.
He said the group also will try to gather information to determine whether the civic center can earn enough from other events to avoid shifting more of the cost of paying back the renovation bond to taxpayers.
“We’re not siding with one side over the other,” Becker said, although Hall said the organizations might not remain neutral forever.
“It’s easy to just want to take sides and say, ‘That’s the good guy and that’s the bad guy,’ ” Hall said, but an examination of the standoff’s economic impact could influence opinions in the future.
“Could that involve somebody taking sides? Yeah, it could,” he said.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: