November 23, 2013

Pirates move to break stalemate with civic center

The team offers to drop its lawsuit if the arena’s trustees agree to negotiate an end to the lease dispute.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Portland Pirates have offered to drop their lawsuit against the Cumberland County civic center if the arena’s trustees will agree to negotiate to resolve the stalemate over the next lease for the American Hockey League team.

click image to enlarge

The Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, shown in February 2012, was the home of the Portland Pirates for 20 seasons until lease negotiations broke down this year.

2012 Press Herald File

According to a letter to Chris Hall, chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber, the Pirates asked for negotiations with the trustees by Dec. 3. In exchange, the team would drop its lawsuit. A copy of the letter was seen Friday by the Portland Press Herald.

Without a lease to play home games at the arena in Portland, the Pirates have been playing in front of small crowds at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston. So far this season, the Pirates rank in attendance 28th out of 30 teams in the AHL with an average attendance of 2,680 fans, according to the league. That arena has capacity for 3,737 people, while the civic center can hold close to twice as many.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said he has talked to representatives from both sides, as well as the chamber of commerce, to try to encourage a resolution to the lease dispute.

“If the Pirates are willing to drop the lawsuit, that’s a major step forward. It remains to be seen what will happen, of course, but it’s good news,” Brennan said.

Hall would not comment on any letter, but said he has been involved with trying to get the two sides to meet.

“I’ve been engaged for a month with the attorneys on both sides to get everyone back to the negotiating table or to reach a resolution,” Hall said. “We want to make sure the community is made whole.”

Many businesses in the area of downtown Portland around the civic center count on business from fans who go to the Pirates’ games. The team spent the last 20 seasons in Portland.

Several weeks ago, Hall invited the Pirates and the civic center’s trustees to a meeting, but there still has been no meeting, he said.

Neal Pratt, chairman of the trustees, could not be reached for comment late Friday.

Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic said the city has a role in encouraging talks between the two sides because it has a vested interest in the viability of downtown businesses that benefit from a busy arena.

“We’re a big stakeholder here ... I find it unthinkable that the Pirates and the civic center don’t have more of a shared mutual interest in moving together,” Suslovic said. “We need to solve this and move beyond it.”

The dispute peaked in September, when the hockey team filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the trustees from breaking a tentative agreement they had reached in April.

That agreement called for a five-year lease in which the team would share in concession sales and advertising revenue for the first time.

The trustees said the tentative agreement specifically called for more negotiations toward a final deal. Courts don’t recognize “agreements to agree,” they said in a court filing, and the civic center should not be required “to perform under the terms of an alleged lease agreement that was never reached.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, court-ordered negotiations have been unsuccessful and the Pirates have committed to play all of this season at the Colisee, whose majority owner is a part-owner of the Pirates.

The civic center is undergoing a $34 million renovation and is scheduled to reopen in January, when the Pirates originally were slated to return to Portland after playing early-season games in Lewiston.

“We’ve been of the mindset of wanting to meet, to find the common ground we need to be on the ice in a renovated civic center,” said Brian Petrovek, managing owner of the Pirates. “Since we bought the team almost 14 years ago, we’ve been waiting to be in a renovated civic center.”

When asked Friday whether any of the 2013-14 season could be salvaged in Portland, Petrovek said the team committed to play this season in Lewiston and negotiations would likely focus on next season. The Colisee did not return calls seeking comment.

“The focus right now is to get the parties back together,” Petrovek said.

The Dec. 3 deadline is a goal to encourage both sides to meet, he said.

“We need to have some teeth to the process. But the deadline’s in play – if it’s off by a day or two that’s not an issue,” Petrovek said.

Since the Pirates said they would play this entire season in Lewiston, the civic center quickly moved to book some events in the hockey team’s absence, including a concert on a night when the Pirates would have been playing a home game.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.

Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@pressherald.com

@JessicaHallPPH

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