PORTLAND — With the announcement last week by the Portland Pirates professional hockey team that it will play its entire 2013-2014 home season in Lewiston, the Cumberland County Civic Center has lost its anchor tenant.
But a lot more may be lost.
The Pirates will play their 38 home games and any home playoff games at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, Brian Petrovek, the team’s managing owner, said at a Sept. 26 press conference in the Lewiston arena.
The news came one day after court-required mediation between the Pirates and the Civic Center failed, he said. The Pirates sued the center earlier this month after negotiations over a new lease broke down.
Now, instead of playing just 13 early-season games at the Colisee while the Civic Center completes a $33 million renovation, the Pirates will “turn the page and focus all of (the team’s) energies, both on and off the ice, on providing a world-class professional hockey experience, the American Hockey League, at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee,” Petrovek said.
The move has left some fans and merchants in Portland with bad feelings, and potentially worse.
“It’s definitely going to affect our business,” said Elena Senore, floor manager of Binga’s Stadium, a sports bar and restaurant across from the Civic Center on Free Street.
“We get a lot of our dinner rush before and after home games. We have season-ticket holders that are regulars, but now probably won’t be coming.”
She said she’s worried, although the impact on business won’t be felt for a few months, because Binga’s was already anticipating the Pirates’ early-season stay in Lewiston. Senore also said she has heard some customers gripe about the team’s decision to leave the Civic Center after calling it “home ice” since 1993.
One unhappy fan is Ted Bonham, a North Deering resident who said he has attended Pirates games for many years.
“I knew there was a lot of disagreement between (the team and the Civic Center). Both of them were probably at fault, but I think it’s lame that the Pirates bailed on Portland,” he said as he passed by the arena on Monday. “So much for loyalty.”
Someone with a unique perspective on the Pirates’ departure is Godfrey Wood, who served as the team’s first general manager and chief executive officer in the 1990s, and later as CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber. (Wood is also married to Karen Wood, publisher of The Forecaster.)
“City (businesses) are going to be losing some revenue,” he said. “Any time you lose foot traffic downtown, it’s going to hurt.”
When operating a normal schedule of around 130 events, the arena adds an estimated $15 million annually to the regional economy.
Besides bars and restaurants that won’t fill with game-goers, other local businesses that may lose out include suppliers of game programs, novelties, food and other concessions, Wood said.
Revenue from concessions was a sticking point in the lease negotiations between the Pirates and the Civic Center, which lasted for months and included dozens of meetings.
In April, the center’s board of trustees agreed to a tentative set of 16 “basic business terms” that included granting the Pirates a five-year stay and their first-ever share of net concession revenue: 57.5 percent.
But the formula for dividing concession sales had to be recalculated because of state law that forbids the Pirates, without a liquor license, from receiving proceeds of alcoholic beverage sales. The two sides deadlocked over the new formula, which would have given the Pirates a 65 percent share of net proceeds from the sale of food and non-alcoholic drinks.
Neal Pratt, chairman of the Civic Center board, Friday said the formula and other terms represented “the richest offer the Pirates had ever been offered.”
“We were left with a choice: accede to their demands for more money, which would have increased the burden on taxpayers, or hold the line,” he said. “I’m proud that the trustees stood their ground.”
The loss of 25 games bringing in fans will not create major financial problems for the Civic Center itself, because it doesn’t make a profit on the games and usually just breaks even, according to Pratt.
“Sure, we’re going to lose revenue, but there are also costs we won’t have,” he said. There are no plans to lay off Civic Center employees, and the arena is working to fill the newly open dates on its schedule, he added.
“This is a very appealing market,” Pratt said. “Portland is going to have options, and we’re going to explore all of them.”
Dates could be filled with concerts, which typically are more profitable than the games, according to Pratt, although less frequent. Another sports team could also make the Civic Center its home. However, the AHL won’t permit another league team in Portland while the Pirates are based within 50 miles.
The Civic Center has operated in the black for most of its 36-year history, although losses in recent years prompted the massive renovation, which officials said was necessary if the center is to remain competitive. The project began last year, and is expected to be complete by January.
Regardless of the future, the Pirates’ departure is a sad occasion today, even for those close to the parties involved.
“We did our absolute best to protect the interests of Cumberland County taxpayers, but we’re disappointed. I feel this personally,” Pratt said.
Petrovek said, “We were disappointed with the outcome (of the negotiations), but we’re moving on.”
Wood, who led the Pirates during their only AHL championship season in 1994, was disappointed, too.
“This is just a shame,” he said.