March 16, 2010

If team leaves Portland, businesses will take a hit

Eateries and bars near the civic center see a surge of visitors on game nights.

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — J.D. Way is keeping a close eye on the Portland Pirates, but he's less interested in the hockey team's playoff run than what it's doing off the ice.

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J.D. Way, co-owner of Binga's Stadium near the Cumberland County Civic Center, says his restaurant is buzzing with customers when the Portland Pirates have a home game. "I'm not very excited to see these rumors about them leaving for Albany," he said.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Way, co-owner of Binga's Stadium, a smokehouse and bar, said the outcome of lease negotiations between the Pirates and the nearby Cumberland County Civic Center will have a huge impact on him, his business and his employees.

The Pirates' five-year lease with the civic center expires April 30, and the American Hockey League franchise has been talking with officials in Albany, N.Y., about moving the team there.

Way can expect a healthy boost in business 36 to 40 nights a year, when the Pirates are playing across the street, starting about two hours before the puck is dropped.

"We will go from 40 seats occupied to all 220 seats occupied and a line in, literally, 15 minutes," he said.

Without the team and those extra customers, Way said, he may cut five or six employees next winter from his full-time staff of 48.

"I'm not very excited to see these rumors about them leaving for Albany," he said.

The Pirates and the civic center are in high-stakes negotiations, with potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars separating them.

The Pirates have proposed revamping their revenue split with the arena, and the civic center's trustees have made a counteroffer with less drastic alterations in the current lease.

Outside the 7,000-seat arena, the stakes are also significant.

Way said the team's visibility in the community and the fans who go to his restaurant led him to be a corporate partner of the Pirates, with his company's logo visible under the rink's ice.

"It's been a heavy investment for us, in time and money, to develop that relationship," he said.

Across Spring Street from the civic center, the Holiday Inn by the Bay also has a profitable relationship with the Pirates. The hotel has a contract to host the visiting teams, which fills about 15 rooms each night at a time of year when demand is low, said Gus Tillman, the hotel's general manager.

Occasionally, a bus carrying boosters will follow a visiting team to Portland, he said, and that can mean another 20 to 30 rooms booked. When the Pirates hosted the AHL's all-star game in January, "that was some nice business" that filled more rooms, he said.

"When our occupancies are so down with the economy, any little bit we have, we need," Tillman said.

No one has studied the team's economic impact on the local economy, but the civic center's sales of food and beverages -- about $350,000 last season -- offer a measuring stick.

Many fans eat in nearby restaurants and hoist a few at nearby bars before or after the games, which likely accounts for several thousand more dollars per game.

Neal Pratt, chairman of the civic center's board of trustees, said officials estimate that events at the arena pump as much as $15 million a year into the local economy, but they haven't broken out the Pirates' portion of that amount.

The Pirates affect downtown Portland's economy, even though no one has come up with a dollar amount, said Barbara Whitten, president and chief executive officer of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Portland.

"They really do draw people into the downtown area," Whitten said. "People go out to dinner before and after, they buy gas, they come in from surrounding towns -- people who wouldn't otherwise be here. It's not negligible."

Whitten said pro sports add luster to the region. The bureau mentions all three of Portland's minor league teams -- the Pirates, baseball's Sea Dogs and basketball's Red Claws -- in marketing material for the city, and the bureau has arranged group trips to games for visitors.

(Continued on page 2)

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