A day after city leaders were caught off-guard by news that its minor-league hockey team of 23 years was leaving Portland, Mayor Ethan Strimling called for changes in the way the Cross Insurance Arena is managed.

The Portland Pirates confirmed that the team had been sold and would no longer be playing its home games at the Portland arena, which is owned by Cumberland County and managed by a nine-member board of trustees appointed by the county commissioners.

The announcement provoked anger, not only because of the loss of a beloved team and economic catalyst, but also because taxpayers in 2011 approved a $34 million investment in the facility as a way to secure a long-term contract with the team.

If the proposed sale and move to Springfield, Massachusetts, is approved by the league, the Pirates would be leaving two years into a five-year lease, making it more difficult for the county to pay down debt incurred by the renovation.

It appears no one from the team or the arena reached out to the city to discuss the potential sale or move, even though they had been renegotiating their lease for a couple of weeks.

“The governing structure over there I think has to be looked at so it’s a little more accountable to taxpayers, especially the biggest taxpayer in the pool,” Strimling said of the arena board. “Portland taxpayers are putting money into that place and I’m pretty frustrated we had no warning, no voice at the table, no nothing in terms of the conversation.”


The governance structure of the arena was also questioned in 2013, when the Pirates and arena officials were at-odds over lease negotiations. Forty-four people applied to be a volunteer trustee with the hopes of reigniting negotiations.

The county currently assesses $39.9 million in taxes on 28 communities. In fiscal 2016, Portland contributed the most at $5.4 million, more than the second- and third-largest contributors combined. Scarborough contributes nearly $2.5 million, while South Portland pays $2.5 million.

It’s not clear why Portland officials did not know that the arena’s board was renegotiating a lease with its key tenant.


Former Portland City Manager Joe Gray serves on the arena’s board of trustees. When reached by phone, Gray said he couldn’t comment because he was traveling in New York. Sam Surprise, the board’s vice chair and its representative for Portland and Long Island, referred all questions to the board chairman, Mitchell Berkowitz.

“It’s speculative that the city could have done anything,” Berkowitz said.


Berkowitz said he invited the five county commissioners to a meeting at which negotiations over new lease terms for the Pirates were discussed. Two of the commissioners, Susan Witonis and Stephen F. Gorden, attended. Neither represents Portland.

Also, Strimling said the $100,000 penalty for the team breaking its lease is not enough, given the public investment in the facility.

“It’s my understanding that the buyout is 100,000 bucks,” he said. “That’s a joke. That should have been negotiated much more strongly.”

Other city officials were disappointed with the announcement, noting that it was a business decision driven by flagging attendance, though they would have liked to have been given the opportunity to participate in the negotiations. Instead they are looking to the future.

“It’s disappointing to lose the Pirates at this time, but I am optimistic the future is still bright for future uses at that facility,” said Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director.

The Pirates also lease space in the city-owned Spring Street parking garage. That lease generates $23,000 a year in revenue and can be terminated without penalty with 180 days notice, said Mitchell, who is not aware of any formal notice from the team that they’d be leaving.



Mitchell, whose job is to attract and retain businesses in the city, said he didn’t learn of the Pirates’ move until the city began receiving calls from reporters. He said rumors about the Pirates leaving were more prevalent before the arena was renovated and that things had been quiet since the project was completed in 2014.

“I’m disappointed,” he said. “I’m not sure what the city could have offered, not being a part of the discussions. We’re sort of Monday morning quarterbacking about the event.”

The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce didn’t learn of the news until it was reported in the media, Chief Executive Officer Chris Hall said. He was not surprised by the sale, since minor-league hockey teams in the Northeast have been struggling with attendance and the American Hockey League had made a strategic decision to pull out of the region.

When asked if there was anything the chamber or the city could have done to keep the team here, Hall said, “we weren’t given the chance. But I can guarantee you we would have tried.”

Hall said some businesses are “freaking out.” During the campaign to approve the renovation bond, bars and restaurant owners said their revenues increase 25 percent to 30 percent when there is an event at the arena. That added revenue is especially helpful in the winter, when business usually drops.


But Hall isn’t focusing on what might have been.

“Really you have to pivot quickly to what comes next,” he said. “It’s a great sports culture in this town and we want to maintain that. That’s what makes Portland attractive to people.”

Staff Writer Ed Murphy contributed to this report.


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