GRAY — The future of the Cross Insurance Arena – including finding a tenant to replace the departing Portland Pirates hockey team – will be the focus of extensive discussions by county government, the Cumberland County commissioners said Monday.

“We are doing everything we can to find a tenant for the building,” said Commissioner Susan Witonis, a Casco resident who represents rural communities in the county’s northwest.

The Portland Pirates stunned fans and city officials last week when the team announced it was leaving Portland after 23 years and moving to Springfield, Massachusetts.

Witonis and other commissioners commented briefly about the arena at their meeting Monday in Gray, but did not mention any specific plans for the building.

The loss of the arena’s major tenant could leave county taxpayers on the hook to pay back a $33 million bond issue approved by voters five years ago to fund renovations to the venue. Business owners and officials in Portland, including Mayor Ethan Strimling, are also frustrated that they were not given any advance notice of the Pirates’ departure and fear that losing the team could hurt business at nearby restaurants and bars. Strimling also called for changes in the leadership of the arena’s oversight board to make it more accountable to taxpayers

James Cloutier, who represents Portland on the county commission, said it was understandable to think that the arena could become a financial burden on taxpayers, but suggested the departure could open dates for other events there. The community would miss the family entertainment the Pirates provided, Cloutier said, and he predicted a “lively discussion” among commissioners on what to do next.

Commissioner Tom Coward did not discuss plans for the arena, but said commissioners would be talking a lot about ideas they have to enhance it.

Management of the Cross Insurance Arena – formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center – is overseen by a nine-member board of trustees appointed by the commissioners. The Pirates are two years into a five-year contract approved by trustees following long and sometimes contentious negotiations. The county hoped the deal would keep the Pirates in Portland, but team officials approached trustees in the past month to say the arrangement wasn’t workable, despite attempts to renegotiate the lease, board chairman Mitchell Berkowitz said in an interview last week.

Trustees didn’t know the Pirates’ income during contract negotiations, something that wasn’t a problem because they had other techniques they could use in their discussions, Berkowitz said at the time.

Witonis encouraged county residents Monday to contact their commissioners to offer concerns and comments about the future of the arena. The board of trustees is meeting Wednesday to discuss the issue, she added.

Taxpayer responsibility for the arena is a sensitive topic in some Cumberland County communities that are too far away to benefit from having the venue, Witonis said.

In 2011, officials in Bridgton and Harrison issued letters urging people to vote against the renovation bond.

“I know it’s always been a concern for the people out here in the rural communities that it doesn’t pay for me to go in there because it is so far, and all the tax dollars are going to the Civic Center,” Witonis said. “That is not true. I can honestly tell you that I continually express my concerns for you people out here in the rural community.”


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