Fearing loss of fans downtown, Portland Chamber pressures civic center, Pirates hockey team to reconcile

Bill Becker of Key Private Bank, president of the Portland Community Chamber, speaks at one of the organization's regular Eggs & Issues breakfast events Wednesday at the Holiday Inn By The Bay.
Bill Becker of Key Private Bank, president of the Portland Community Chamber, speaks at one of the organization's regular Eggs & Issues breakfast events Wednesday at the Holiday Inn By The Bay. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 04, 2013, at 2:46 p.m.
Scott True of Biddeford, right, waves a flag with his wife, second from right holding their son, Weston, as they cheer the Portland Pirates at their home opener against the Manchester Monarchs at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston in this October 2013 photo.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
Scott True of Biddeford, right, waves a flag with his wife, second from right holding their son, Weston, as they cheer the Portland Pirates at their home opener against the Manchester Monarchs at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston in this October 2013 photo.

PORTLAND, Maine — A top Portland Community Chamber official told organization members Wednesday to consider filling vacancies on the Cumberland County Civic Center board of trustees as a way to kickstart long stalled lease negotiations between the arena and Portland Pirates professional hockey team.

Bill Becker of Key Private Bank, president of the Portland Community Chamber, told the group’s members Wednesday morning that Portland businesses must maintain pressure on both sides to resolve a heated dispute that has left the Pirates playing home games — at least for this season — in Lewiston after two decades in downtown Portland.

Becker said the Pirates generated between $4 million and $5 million in economic activity in the area each year over their 38 annual home games, breaking down to more than $100,000 per game night. Each lost home game equates to the loss of a cruise ship visit in terms of downtown business, he said.

The loss of that activity is of great concern to chamber members, many of whom own or operate downtown stores and restaurants, Becker said. And he said chamber leadership is not reassured by the potential addition of between six and 12 games “from an indoor lacrosse team that may or may not come.”

On Monday, the startup United States Lacrosse League announced the establishment of a local franchise, the Maine Moose Trax, which will seek to play home games in the 6,700-seat civic center, although venue officials have described talks with that team as still being preliminary.

The Pirates filed a lawsuit against the civic center in early September after the latest round of lease negotiations broke down, and soon thereafter announced they would play their entire home schedule this season in the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.

The team is also reportedly considering plans to build a new home arena in Saco.

On Wednesday, Becker, who spoke briefly before attendees at one of the chamber’s regular breakfast events, said chamber leaders had convinced the Pirates to drop their lawsuit if the trustees would return to the negotiating table. But he said the trustees did not accept the offer.

Neither Neal Pratt, chairman of the civic center trustees, nor David Barry, attorney for the trustees, immediately responded to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

In a letter late last month to the Portland Press Herald, Barry wrote that the trustees were willing to let the dispute play out in court.

“The trustees do not believe that a chamber-sponsored ‘private’ meeting between representatives of the civic center and the Pirates is the appropriate forum for resolution of this matter,” Barry wrote.

Becker on Wednesday suggested that chamber members try to change the civic center board’s position by obtaining seats on that board.

Four seats on the nine-member panel are up for appointment, including the one currently held by Pratt, and Becker said chamber members should apply for them.

“If we want change, we need to do it ourselves,” he said.

In its lawsuit, the hockey team claims civic center trustees rescinded a legally binding offer that would have given the Pirates the equivalent of half the revenues from game concessions, as well as a portion of the arena’s advertising revenues. The trustees countered that the offer was never officially extended to begin with, and that the Pirates were insisting on a plan that would, in effect, force county taxpayers to subsidize team profits.

Becker expressed concerns Wednesday that the loss of Pirates home games could jeopardize the civic center’s ability to cover payments on a $33 million bond for renovations, which are currently underway.

But in a previous interview with the Bangor Daily News, Pratt said the hockey lease was a “break-even proposition” for the arena, and that the venue’s financial stability did not depend on the Pirates, who are the American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes.

With the renovations keeping the arena closed until early 2014, the next event listed to take place there is the Maine Home, Remodeling and Garden Show in early February.

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