Staff from the Cross Insurance Area are hoping federal money from last month’s coronavirus relief bill will help to keep the arena operating until large live events can come back. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — With the Maine Mariners hockey season suspended and no other large events booked because of the pandemic, Cross Insurance Arena is banking on federal funding to keep it operating and spare county taxpayers from having to make up for most of the lost revenue.

Cumberland County Manager Jim Gailey said he hopes large events, such as Maine Mariners games, can return to the Cross Insurance Arena again later this year, bringing with them revenue to cover the arena’s operations. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

General Manager Melanie Henkes and county staff are hopeful the county-owned arena will soon receive a share of the $15 billion earmarked for performance venues in the $900 billion coronavirus relief package passed in late December.

Deputy Manager of Finance and Administration Alex Kimball said he expects to hear about the funding within the next few weeks. How much is expected is unknown.

“The legislation is in place. Now it is just a matter at the federal level of putting it in place,” Kimball said.

The money would be “enormously important” in making up for the loss in revenue as a result of the pandemic. The arena took in $4 million less in event revenue from March to December 2020 than it did in that same time period in 2019, Kimball said.

As arena and county officials await news of any federal aid coming their way, they are in the early stages of drafting a budget to run from July through June 30, 2022. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout, mass gathering restrictions set by the governor and when events, including a full slate of Maine Mariner games, can safely return to the arena will dictate what that budget looks like, Cumberland County Manager Jim Gailey said.

“Once we get through the summer, we are hoping it will be more of an upswing and a sign of positive things to come,” Gailey said.

Kimball said before the pandemic hit, the arena “was on pace to have an excellent year,” but then the lack of revenue from events, concession sales and other large event income took a toll. The arena’s 2020-2021 budget, $3.43 million — a $57,000 reduction from the 2019-2020 budget — has been buoyed by an additional $750,000 from the county budget and money from venue sponsors.

“That’s what’s patching things together at the arena,” Gailey said.

Arena staff has had to get creative to bring in some revenue in since the pandemic took hold, Henkes said. In October it hosted Jibe Cycling Studio’s socially distant Spin-a-thon, in which 600 people participated over the course of 12 hours to raise $15,000 for the Maine Cancer Foundation. It held a drive-thru job fair for Bath Iron Works, and it has offered tickets for virtual events such as a screening of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” a New Year’s Eve Kiss concert and, this month, Colin Mochire and Brad Sherwood’s “Stream of Consciousness” comedy show.

“It’s been about adjusting the level of what events can look like right now,” Henkes said.

The arena also was forced to lay off 11 full-time workers because of the pandemic, leaving it with a skeleton crew of six.

“Like most businesses, we have had to make some tough decisions in terms of furloughs, laying people off and reduced salaries,” Henkes said.

The expected federal funding “would give us an opportunity to put back in place the great staff we had and get back to where we were prior to the pandemic,” she said.

Gailey is hopeful large events can return to the Cross Insurance Arena later this year.

“A lot of shows were stalled this year and are looking to be back on the road later this year or early next year,” he said.

While some outdoor performance venues might begin holding events as early as the summer, Henkes said it will be at least the fall before the arena holds shows.

“We see the potential of fall. Whether that is a scaled capacity or full capacity, we don’t know, but we will adhere to whatever the state mandates are at the time,” she said.

Two acts, children’s entertainer JoJo Siwa and comedian Gabriel Iglesias, have committed to future shows at the arena. The Siwa show is scheduled for July 25 and the Iglesias show for Oct. 30.

In the meantime, Henkes said the arena will continue to be available as an alternate care site for COVID-19 patients if local hospitals can no longer keep up with demand in their facilities.

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