AUGUSTA — Officials of the Cumberland County Civic Center and the majority owner of the Portland Pirates reached agreement Tuesday: Both supported a proposed bill that they said would remove one obstacle to a new lease allowing the hockey team to resume playing in the Portland arena.
But, they said, the change in the law, which would allow the arena and the American Hockey League team to share liquor sales revenue, isn’t the only hurdle they face in negotiating a new lease.
The bill was discussed Tuesday afternoon at a public hearing of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, and will be voted on by the panel Friday. It would negate a state law that currently bars a liquor licensee from sharing revenue with a tenant, a provision that civic center lawyers said they learned about while drafting a proposed five-year lease agreement between the team and the arena last spring. The two sides had agreed to split liquor and food sales at future games, with the Pirates getting 57.5 percent of the revenue after deducting costs.
Civic center board chairman Neal Pratt told the committee that the current law also barred the civic center, which holds the license, from using liquor sales as a basis for determining the revenue split. For instance, the arena couldn’t try to craft a split for food sales alone based on how much the Pirates would get for 57.5 percent of the combined food and liquor sales.
Subsequent offers to the Pirates on a revenue split for food sales alone were rejected, as was a final lease offer from the civic center last August. After that proposal was turned down, the Pirates announced they would play their future home games at the Colisee in Lewiston. The team also sued the civic center, seeking to enforce the terms of the tentative lease that the two sides agreed to last April, although that proposal was never signed and negotiations had continued over the summer until the August final offer was sent.
Pirates’ attendance has plummeted in Lewiston, with the team drawing slightly more than half of the average attendance of nearly 4,500 in Portland last year.
This winter, Ron Cain – who had held a minority stake in the team – became the majority owner of the Pirates, dropped the lawsuit and asked that negotiations resume.
Gerry Reid, director of the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations, said his agency had no objection to changing the law.
Under the wording, it would apply only to liquor revenue-sharing arrangements in leases between professional sports teams and facilities with seating for more than 3,000 people.
There are five such arenas in Maine – Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, the Colisee in Lewiston, the Augusta Civic Center, the Portland Expo and the Cumberland County Civic Center.
Cain told the committee that the revenue-sharing part of the lease was “a key element” to an agreement and mirrored a common practice between arenas and sports team tenants around the country.
Pratt agreed that changing the law would remove one area of disagreement with the Pirates, but characterized it as “only part of the puzzle.”
The other major point of contention is whether and how to split “sub-naming rights” of parts of the arena. That could include, for instance, a fee charged to name one of the civic center’s new luxury suites after a sponsoring company. The Pirates want a cut of that fee, but the civic center contends that money belongs to the arena.
Neither Cain nor Pratt would characterize the current state of the negotiations, although Pratt indicated to the committee that some talks continued over last weekend.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: