In a hockey game, this would be known as getting blindsided.
Just over a year ago, the Portland Regional Chamber bestowed its prestigious “Robert R. Masterton Award for Leadership in Economic Development” on Neal Pratt, five-time chairman of the Cumberland County Civic Center’s board of trustees, for his tireless oversight of the civic center’s soon-to-be-completed $34 million renovation.
Fast forward to the chamber’s monthly Eggs & Issues breakfast Wednesday, when a top chamber official essentially called for Pratt’s head on a platter.
“We certainly would like to get people (on the board of trustees) who would like to get the Portland Pirates back. I think some turnover is good,” explained Bill Becker, who exhorted those in the breakfast crowd to apply for one of the four available seats on the civic center’s governing body. Including, we should note, the seat Chairman Pratt has no desire to give up.
Perplexed? Imagine how Neal Pratt must feel.
Let’s go to the replay:
In September, after months of bare-knuckle negotiations on a new lease for the Pirates at the civic center, the AHL hockey team sued the civic center and, by extension, the taxpayers of Cumberland County.
In a complaint that should get two minutes in the penalty box for impersonating a valid legal argument, the Pirates claimed that a one-page “term sheet” approved by the trustees months earlier constitutes a “binding agreement” pending the signing of a lease. Thus, they argued, they should be allowed back into the civic center under those terms once the building’s front-to-back facelift is completed early next year.
After the lawsuit was filed, the two sides engaged in mandatory mediation with Maine Superior Court Chief Justice Thomas Humphrey. But those intensive talks, like the negotiations that preceded them, failed to end the standoff between the Pirates (who want more money) and the civic center trustees (who insist to this day that they’ve handed over their last nickel).
Enter Portland Regional Chamber CEO Chris Hall, who last month contacted both sides in an effort to get them back to the bargaining table. The Pirates jumped at the chance, while the trustees said thanks, but this thing is now in court and that final offer was in fact their final offer.
That’s when the gloves came off.
Just before this week’s Eggs & Issues main event – Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew vs. the Affordable Care Act – Becker took the podium to decry the civic center/Pirates impasse.
He also noted the four openings on the nine-member board – three-year terms will soon expire for Pratt, Gary Plummer and Joe Bruno, while two years remain on the late Bill Troubh’s term – and urged his fellow chamber members to fill out one of the applications on their tables for appointment to the board by the county commissioners.
Translation: Let’s send Pratt, who already has applied for reappointment, packing. And while we’re at it, let’s fill the other three slots with trustees who are (wink, wink) a little more business-friendly.
Now I know Portland is a relatively small town and people’s paths cross all the time. Still, it’s worth noting here that Jim Cohen, chairman of the Portland Regional Chamber’s board of directors, also happens to be Jim Cohen, attorney for the Portland Pirates in their lawsuit against the Cumberland County Civic Center.
In a hockey game, that would be known as too many Jim Cohens on the ice.
Asked about the rather glaring coincidence Thursday, Cohen explained that the Portland Regional Chamber is actually a “confederation” of smaller community chambers. Becker, while using the Portland Regional Chamber’s heavily attended breakfast to throw Pratt & Co. under the Pirates’ bus, is president of the Portland Community Chamber and was acting in that capacity, Cohen said.
“I’ve tried to keep my regional chamber role separate from my role on behalf of the Pirates,” said Cohen, who was in the audience when Becker launched his pep rally.
“I had no idea what Bill (Becker) was going to say. I had no idea Bill was going to hand out the applications. I was sitting at a table (and) didn’t even know those things were there until he mentioned them,” Cohen said. “I am outside of the Portland Community Chamber.”
Fair enough – although there’s still no escaping the fact that the breakfast was a Portland Regional Chamber event. An event that was used to turn the civic center trustees, Cohen’s legal adversaries, into so many pieces of toast.
The bottom line here is that the chamber (regional, community, whatever …) has clearly taken sides in this brawl.
Their scorecard: The Pirates, languishing in Lewiston and suddenly eager to start talking again, are the good guys. The trustees, who have said all they have to say about a deal that already would heap unprecedented revenues on the hockey team, are thorns in the side of economic prosperity.
But can we call a quick timeout here? Pratt, whose bio still lists the Portland Regional Chamber’s leadership award among his proudest achievements, has a question for those who now suddenly see him as a hopeless obstructionist.
“We get accused of not negotiating in good faith,” Pratt mused in an interview Wednesday. “Why? Even if we were otherwise inclined to do that, why on earth would we do that? I’m certainly not getting a very big charge out of this right now.”
The man has a point.
The Pirates, after all, are in this to make money. And if some of that comes at the expense of county taxpayers – who remain on the hook should the civic center fail to make its estimated $800,000 annual contribution to pay down that $34 million renovation bond – that’s not the Pirates’ problem.
The trustees, on the other hand, are unpaid volunteers whose financial interest begins and ends with what’s best for those taxpayers.
That would explain why, even as this legal/public relations fight rages on, Pratt will soon send out a request for proposals from private management companies that can take the newly renovated civic center and bring it to a whole new level. Just like they’ve already done in Bangor and Manchester, N.H.
“There are terrific, well-qualified national companies out there that can take advantage of their vast network of contacts in the entertainment industry, the sports industry, et cetera,” Pratt said. “We want to maximize the management model to make sure we’re doing the best we can for the facility and for the taxpayers.”
Replace Neal Pratt? Because he’s done duking it out with the Portland Pirates?
Someone should give him an award.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: