November 26, 2013

Our View: Portland Pirates, civic center owe voters more talks

Their joint campaign in 2011 for a renovation bond presents the parties with an obligation not to give up.

The relationship between the Portland Pirates and the Cumberland County Civic Center is pretty icy now, but that wasn’t always the case.

click image to enlarge

Dan Bailey of Yarmouth waves the Jolly Roger during a game between the Portland Pirates and Manchester Monarchs at the Cumberland County Civic Center in 2010. The arena’s trustees and the team’s owners should resume talks to resolve a stalemate over the Pirates’ lease.

2010 File Photo/Gregory Rec

Just two years ago, the civic center and its anchor tenant were quite chummy, working together to pass a $34 million bond issue to renovate the aging arena, promising, among other things, that it would keep the American Hockey League franchise in Portland. The voters approved the project, construction began and now we are just weeks away from a grand reopening.

Only, it will be a reopening without the Pirates because the team’s owners were unable to come to terms with an agreement with the civic center’s board of trustees. The Pirates are playing home games in Lewiston, to small crowds.

The Pirates are a private business, and the team can do whatever its owners decide is in the team’s best interest. The civic center’s board should be singlemindedly looking out for the taxpayers of Cumberland County.

But the fact that these public-private partners campaigned together such a short time ago should make them feel that they owe something to the voters, who, with good reason, believed that they were voting to give the Pirates the amenities the team needed to stay in Portland.

The news that the Pirates would be willing to drop their lawsuit against the county if talks resume is positive. The lawsuit never looked like it was going anywhere – the team argued that an agreement on the outline of a lease agreement should be enforced as an actual lease agreement – but dropping it would at least signal that the team is ready to give a little.

The trustees should also be willing to reopen talks to resolve this disagreement.

From the publicly released facts, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two sides. The Pirates want a larger share of the concession income, and the trustees say they have made their last offer.

Renting to the Pirates is a break-even at best business for the civic center, and the trustees say they can make more income booking concerts. But the team does put people on the streets of downtown Portland during tourism’s off-season.

The venue may make more money from other types of entertainment, but the restaurants and bars in the neighborhood get more business from hockey fans than they do from concert-goers. That’s why downtown businesses supported the referendum and campaigned alongside the civic center and the Pirates.

And it was that joint effort that gives the parties an extra onus to reach a deal. The partners from the 2011 campaign should still be partners now that the public’s money has been spent.

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