SACO, Maine — The Portland Pirates could be playing hockey in a brand new ice arena on Lund Road after the city council on Monday entered into an option with Maine Hockey Group Inc. for 12.85 city-owned acres.
The location is one of several venues the team is exploring in its quest for a permanent home, said a representative for Ron Cain, the Kennebunk man who co-owns Maine Hockey Group Inc. and is a part-owner of the Portland Pirates franchise.
The council voted 6-1 Monday, with Councilor Eric Cote dissenting, to approve the option agreement. If all goes well, the company will exercise the option and purchase the land at an agreed-upon price of $105,000.
“There is a great level of excitement [about a proposed new ice arena in Saco],” said Dave Porter, who represented Cain in his dealings with the city. He noted, however, the Saco property is one of a number of venues being viewed as a home for the Pirates.
Saco Economic Development Director Peter Morelli pegged the potential project at $20-$30 million; Porter estimated $40-$50 million. Whichever price tag, however, the new facility, with at least 4,000 seats, would be one of the city’s largest taxpayers — and under the terms of the option, would remain a tax-paying entity as long as it is owned by Maine Hockey Group, Morelli said. The company already owns one ice arena on Lund Road, called MHG Ice Center, where the Portland Junior Pirates play.
“We believe we have a better site for a hockey [venue] due to the fact that we have almost unlimited acreage, a politically stable community, we’re near the turnpike and we’re willing to work with any developer,” said Mayor Mark Johnston.
“It’s incredible. It could be a very good community facility,” said Morelli.
The land under option is to the rear of the city’s public works lot. The initial option is for 180 days but can be renewed three times, extending out to a maximum of two years.
Morelli said the city’s role is to sell the property and address traffic issues — perhaps through extending Lund Road, now a dead end, to the Industrial Park Road — but all that is yet to be determined. Under the terms of the option, the city would also license another piece of city-owned land, the former Saco Steel lot, for parking.
This isn’t the first time Saco has been eyed as a potential location for the Portland Pirates. Johnston said the city began working on bringing the team to the city about five years ago, before the team’s recent disagreements with the trustees of the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
As well, there were rumblings back in 2010 when Cain, who was already a co-owner of MHG Ice Center, invested in the AHL franchise. But that idea faded as Cumberland County residents in 2011 approved a $33 million bond to renovate the aging civic center, the long-time venue of the hockey franchise.
It bubbled back to the surface not long ago, however, as lease negotiations between the Pirates and civic center trustees broke down. The Pirates recently moved to the Lewiston Colisee, but Johnston said the city took the initiative and made a phone call that resulted in a meeting and ultimately, in the option agreement.
Johnston said the Saco-Old Orchard Beach-Scarborough demographic of a younger set — as opposed to the demographic in other possible locations, like the communities around Lewiston — make Saco a fine location for a hockey franchise. He said a hockey team would have a good following in the area.
Porter on Tuesday said there have been some issues with the Colisee, and he described the Saco property as “one focus.”
“It’s early in the process,” he said, and he pointed out that the project would need financing. “There’s a great deal of excitement, but there are lots of questions that need to be answered.”
Johnston feels certain it will happen.
“I believe within 18 months, we’ll have an arena,” the mayor predicted.