The Portland Pirates and the Cumberland County Civic Center signed a new five-year lease Tuesday that will return the American Hockey League team to the renovated arena in downtown Portland next fall.
The two sides reached the agreement in about a month after resuming the talks that fell apart late last summer. The stalemate led the Pirates to move their home games to Lewiston for this season and file a lawsuit against the county-owned civic center, seeking to enforce the terms of a tentative agreement reached in April.
The negotiations resumed in late December, after Maine businessman Ron Cain bought a bigger share of the Pirates, becoming majority owner, and the lawsuit was dropped.
Cain said his impetus for becoming majority owner was “100 percent” driven by his sense that a new face of the team was needed to get the talks started again. Brian Petrovek, the Pirates’ chief executive officer and managing owner, led the team’s negotiations last year.
The deal signed Tuesday is not dramatically different from the one the Pirates walked away from last summer. The main issues that have been resolved include a renewed agreement for the Pirates to get 57.5 percent of the revenue from game-day liquor and food sales, after expenses.
That was a sticking point previously because the civic center’s lawyers discovered in June that Maine law doesn’t allow a liquor license holder to split that revenue with a building tenant. A bill now in the Legislature would permit the practice for professional sports teams in the state’s largest arenas.
If the bill fails, the Pirates will get 65 percent of food sales only. But with a legislative committee’s unanimous support, the bill is expected to pass easily.
The other major issue was the allocation of revenue from naming rights for sections of the arena, which the civic center gets, and sales of above-the-ice advertising, which is largely controlled by the Pirates. The new lease calls for the civic center to buy ad space from the Pirates if any of its naming-rights deals include advertising inside the arena.
Cain and Neal Pratt, chairman of the civic center’s trustees, said they could negotiate an early return to the civic center if the Pirates make this season’s playoffs, but with the Pirates now ranked at the bottom of their division, Cain joked ruefully that it’s unlikely they will need to discuss it.
The civic center is expected to reopen soon, after being closed since April for a $34 million renovation.
Cain conceded that the team’s move to the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston has not gone well, with the Pirates falling to last in AHL attendance, averaging fewer than 2,500 fans per game.
The Pirates drew about 4,500 a game at the civic center last year, and Cain has said the team had to draw about 3,800 per game in Lewiston for the move to make sense. He also said the Colisee would need about $2 million worth of upgrades if the team were to continue playing there after this season.
Cain acknowledged that, before the negotiations resumed, the situation got so bad that he sent Petrovek to Glens Falls, N.Y., which is expected to lose its AHL team after this season, to determine whether moving the Pirates there made sense.
Those talks “got quite far along,” Cain said, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“I have zero interest in owning a team in Glens Falls,” he said. “I live in Maine. I want (the team) to stay here.”
Pratt said the civic center is happy to get its prime tenant back, even though the deal is essentially break-even financially for the arena and the county.
The breakdown in negotiations had led to criticism that the trustees were being intransigent, after the county’s voters had approved the renovation. The project was pitched, at least in part, as a way to give the Pirates a better place to play and improve the experience for fans. It is scheduled to wrap up this month.
In December, the Portland Regional Chamber called on its members to apply for four open seats on the nine-member board of trustees, in an effort to move the negotiations along.
Forty-four people applied for board seats. The trustees in three of those seats – including Pratt – sought reappointment, and eventually the county commissioners, who appoint the trustees, delayed their decision on who would fill those seats until April.
Chris Hall, the chamber’s CEO, said the new lease proves that the two sides simply had to resume talking to each other. “In a commercial negotiation, it’s never over,” he said.
Hall said the Pirates bring thousands of people downtown for games 35 times a year, and those people spend money in bars, restaurants, hotels and stores in the heart of winter, when business is usually at its slowest.
“This is millions and millions of dollars of economic activity every year,” Hall said, “not just for the bars and merchants in the immediate area, but for the whole region.”
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: