Pennsylvania firms in running to manage Portland downtown arena

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PORTLAND — Officials of the former Cumberland County Civic Center, who in June sold its naming rights to Bangor-based Cross Insurance, may soon be outsourcing the arena’s management.

Discussions are underway with two Philadelphia-area companies, according to Cross Insurance Arena Trustee Brian Dudley: privately owned SMG, and Global Spectrum, a subsidiary of communications and cable TV giant Comcast Corp.

With major renovations of the 6,800-seat arena completed in January and the naming rights sold, privatizing management “is the last big thing,” Dudley said, shortly before a Monday meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners.

Neal Pratt, chairman of the arena’s board, told the commissioners his group is now conducting a second round of talks with the two bidders who responded to a request for management proposals.

Unlike Dudley, Pratt refused to disclose the bidders’ names. But he said the board expects to make a decision on whether to privatize management – and perhaps a decision on the winning bidder – at its next meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 17.

The board began exploring the possibility of privatization a couple years ago, Pratt said. But the $33 million renovation and a bitterly contested lease renewal with the arena’s anchor tenant, the Portland Pirates minor-league hockey team, got in the way.

Over the past several months, the board has re-focused attention on outsourcing management, although the trustees are not obligated to choose that option.

“The 17th is decision day,” Pratt said.

The primary reason for privatizing arena management is to leverage the business connections and marketing clout of a vendor to attract larger, more profitable events, according to Pratt and Dudley.

Global Spectrum and SMG are international companies that each operate hundreds of arenas, convention centers and other event spaces, according to the company websites. Global Spectrum’s clients include the Portland arena’s near-namesake, the newly constructed, 5,800-seat Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Among other venues, SMG operates the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The cost of privatizing with a worldwide company might be higher at first, but could pay rewards later, according to Pratt. From a cost-benefit analysis, privatization might be “favorable.”

“If you pay a little more on the front end, you might make it up on the back end,” he told the commissioners.

But it’s unclear what outsourcing might mean for arena employees or vendors. The number of ticket-takers, hot dog-sellers and others who might be affected wasn’t immediately available.

“One of our concerns is to make sure people are treated fairly,” Pratt said. Current arena workers are employed by the county; under a privatized contract, they might be re-hired by the contractor.

“That’s typically the way it works,” he said.

Pratt said the potential management change was embraced by Steven Crane, who retired in July as Civic Center general manager, after working for the arena since a year after its opening in 1977.

The bidders claim they are ready to pick up Crane’s responsibilities.

Both Global Spectrum and SMG are one-stop-shops that manage every level of arena operations, from senior administration to event booking, to functions such as parking and food concessions.

The similarities between the two bidders don’t stop there.

Both Global Spectrum and SMG trace their roots to Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectacor, a sports and entertainment subsidiary of Comcast that owns the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers and the Flyers’ home ice, the Wells Fargo Center.

Snider created SMG, then known as Spectacor Management, in the 1980s after owning and operating The Spectrum, the 17,000-seat predecessor to the slightly larger Wells Fargo Center. After selling his interest in SMG, he started Global Spectrum, backed by Comcast, in 2000.

Comcast Spectacor is also the parent company of Front Row Marketing Services, which was hired last year to sell the Civic Center’s naming rights.

Pratt stressed that, if its management is outsourced, Cross Arena would be joining the ranks of many similar event centers. After surveying venues in the Northeast, the arena board found that the “vast majority” use private management vendors, he said.

Privatization “wouldn’t change the role of the trustees, who legally would still be in charge,” he added.

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