December 20, 2013

Portland Pirates drop lawsuit; lease talks with civic center to resume

The team’s new majority owner and the arena's trustees’ chairman decide to ‘look toward the future.’

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A Portland Pirates owner said Thursday that the team has dropped its lawsuit against the Cumberland County Civic Center in an effort to resolve a lease dispute with their former landlord.

click image to enlarge

Ron Cain, Pirates' majority owner

The two sides said they expect to meet in the near future to explore the possibility of a lease agreement that would bring the American Hockey League team back to Portland.

The Pirates’ decision to drop the lawsuit arose from a private meeting Wednesday between the team’s new majority owner, Ron Cain, and the chairman of the civic center trustees, Neal Pratt, said Cain.

The Pirates sued the trustees in September, seeking to make the terms of a tentative lease agreement binding.

Cain, who became majority owner this month, sent a letter to the trustees asking to resume lease negotiations, and said he had to resolve the dispute by mid-January or consider options such as building an arena in Saco, moving the team out of state or selling the Pirates.

He said Thursday that “Neal had reached out and we met on Wednesday. The Pirates’ owners decided it was in everyone’s best interest to drop the lawsuit and look toward the future.”

The lawsuit was dropped “without prejudice,” meaning the team could sue at a later date.

The negotiations will focus on the Pirates’ 2014-15 season and beyond, Cain said. The Pirates are now playing their home games at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston and will not be back in Portland this season, he said.

“Our goal is to strike a balance between the team’s business needs and the civic center’s financial obligations,” Cain said.

The civic center has been closed since June for a $34 million renovation, which is expected to be completed in early 2014.

The Pirates originally planned to play early season games in Lewiston and return to the civic center when the renovation was finished. But the dispute between the Pirates and the trustees escalated, and the Pirates sued the civic center and committed to play the entire 2013-14 season at the Colisee, where Cain is an owner.

Cain also owns the MHG Ice Centre in Saco, which is home to the Portland Junior Pirates and the Pirates’ practice facility.

The team’s lawsuit sought to enforce a tentative agreement reached in April that called for a five-year lease in which the Pirates would share concession sales and advertising revenue for the first time, after 20 years in Portland. The trustees contended that the tentative agreement required further negotiations so it was not binding.

In November, the Pirates offered to drop the lawsuit if the trustees would agree to new negotiations, but the trustees declined.

It’s not clear why the trustees agreed this week to negotiate again. Pratt did not return calls seeking comment.

He issued a statement saying, “The trustees’ objective has always been to act in the best interests of the taxpayers, and hearing Ron Cain’s constructive comments last week about trying to find common ground led us to conclude that sitting down for another meeting was a responsible step. The dismissal of the lawsuit provides the opportunity for us to determine whether both of our objectives can be achieved.”

When Cain became majority owner of the Pirates, he said he would take the lead in any talks with the civic center. He also said he would play a more active role as the public face of the team. Previously, managing owner Brian Petrovek played that role. Petrovek did not return calls Thursday seeking comment on the lawsuit’s dismissal.

The conflict between the Pirates and the civic center has come to involve some of Portland’s community and business leaders.

Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, invited both sides last month to hold new negotiations. The trustees declined, saying the courts, not the chamber of commerce, was the appropriate venue to resolve the dispute.

Portland Community Chamber President Bill Becker then encouraged business people to apply for positions as civic center trustees in hopes that a new board would work to get the Pirates back to Portland, where crowds for their home games help businesses such as bars, restaurants and hotels.

Hall and Becker could not be reached for comment Thursday.

On Wednesday, Maine Senate President Justin Alfond said he had submitted emergency legislation that could allow the Pirates to share revenue from alcohol sales with the civic center if the team were to return to the arena. Alfond’s bill would change state law so that the Pirates could share in sales of alcohol without applying for a liquor license.

Cain said Alfond’s efforts did not play a role in the team’s decision to drop the lawsuit, but the bill could help the team as it seeks to share in concession sales.

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

jhall@pressherald.com

Twitter: @JessicaHallPPH

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