Saturday, March 8, 2014
By Paul Betit email@example.com
While work continues on a lease extension between the Portland Pirates and trustees of the Cumberland County Civic Center, the general manager of an arena in Albany, N.Y., says he's close to closing a deal for a new American Hockey League team.
Bob Belber, general manager of the Times Union Center, said in a published report that he has even discussed the new name of the team with the prospective tenant.
''I'm continuing to communicate with an owner of an AHL team who has expressed a genuine interest in moving his team to Albany,'' Belber told the Albany Times-Union this week. ''We have discussed deal terms, and we are potentially close to a final deal.''
The Times-Union newspaper, citing unnamed sources, reported this month that the Pirates are a prime candidate to move to Albany. The arena's current AHL team, the Albany River Rats, has announced that it will move to Charlotte, N.C., after this season to be closer to the Carolina Hurricanes, the team's National Hockey League affiliate.
Belber has declined to identify the AHL team, other than to hint that it's a franchise now based in the Northeast.
The only other AHL team in the Northeast with a lease that is expiring this season is the Lowell Devils, which is owned by the New Jersey Devils. Lowell General Manager Chris Lamoriello said he is unsure of the team's plans for the future.
Recently, ownership of the Tsongas Center where the Devils play was transferred from the city of Lowell to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
''It's been our home for four years, and we certainly would like to have the opportunity to discuss things,'' Lamoriello said. ''Our lease is with the city. Now we have someone else to talk to.''
For the past two seasons, the Pirates have been affiliated with the Buffalo Sabres. A move to upstate New York would put them closer to their NHL parent, making it more convenient and perhaps cheaper to move players back and forth.
Although Albany is much closer to New York City or even Boston than it is to Buffalo, the NHL has put most of upstate New York within Buffalo's television market.
''In this community, it's really evenly split between the Rangers, Islanders and Sabres, and there's even some Boston Bruins fans,'' said Albany River Rats President Garen Szablewski.
A Sabres fan base could help increase attendance in Albany, which has ranked near the bottom of the AHL in attendance in recent years.
The Times Union Center is owned by Albany County. The 14,000-seat arena has more than double the capacity of the Cumberland County Civic Center, which seats 6,715 for hockey.
This season, the River Rats are averaging 3,545 fans per game, ranking 26th among the AHL's 29 teams. The Pirates, who operate in one of the AHL's smallest markets, rank 16th in attendance, averaging 4,145 fans per game.
The River Rats have averaged 3,803 fans per game over the past five seasons. During the same time, the Pirates have averaged 4,813 fans.
Representatives of the civic center met this week with Pirates CEO and managing owner Brian Petrovek to continue discussions on a lease extension. The current five-year lease is scheduled to run out April 30.
''It's a slow process,'' said Neal Pratt, a Portland lawyer who is the lead negotiator for the civic center. ''We're looking at some paperwork and some numbers, and we'll meet again sometime next week.''
Petrovek, meanwhile, declined to say whether the Pirates, who have been based at the civic center for 17 seasons, are considering moving to Albany. He said negotiating a new lease with the civic center continues to be his primary focus.
Neither Petrovek nor Pratt would discuss the obstacles to an agreement on a civic center lease.
''I don't want to get into the specific sticking points, although I wouldn't even use that term because it isn't as much that as it is the economics of the deal,'' Pratt said. ''The economy is lousy, and that makes it tough for a public facility like the civic center.''
Last year, the civic center operated at a deficit for the first time in six years.
Pratt said he has refrained from asking Petrovek whether he has been negotiating with another facility, but he said that wouldn't change the civic center's negotiating position.
''I'll continue to try to be creative, but that doesn't mean we're going to say yes to something we've said no to before,'' Pratt said. ''Any concession we make without a corresponding benefit is going to come out of the taxpayers, directly or indirectly, unless we can grow revenues.''
Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: