PORTLAND — The Cumberland County Civic Center and its former anchor tenant, the Portland Pirates professional hockey team, may re-open lease negotiations after the team on Friday said it was dropping its lawsuit against the arena.
The announcement came two days after a private meeting between Neal Pratt, chairman of the Civic Center board of trustees, and Ron Cain, the new majority owner of the Pirates.
“We agreed to meet privately in hopes of finding a common-sense approach to resolving our differences,” Cain said. “Our goal is to strike a balance between the team’s business needs and the Civic Center’s financial obligations.”
The two parties will meet again after the holidays to resume negotiations, he told The Bangor Daily News. The lawsuit will be withdrawn “without prejudice,” meaning that the Pirates are free to refile it.
The team, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes, sued in September to force the trustees to abide by a tentative agreement reached in April. A one-page, unsigned term sheet called for the Pirates to receive, for the first time, a 57.5 percent share of net profits from concession sales.
But that share had to be recalculated because of state law that forbids the Pirates, without a liquor license, from receiving proceeds from alcoholic beverage sales.
Negotiations over the new formula, and a disagreement about revenue from “sub-naming” rights within the arena, deadlocked in late August. A week later, the team filed its lawsuit and announced it would play home games for the entire 2013-2014 season at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.
The team had originally planned to play 13 games there, while the $33 million renovation of the Civic Center is completed.
Cain, who owns the Colisee and previously held a minority interest in the Pirates, took on his leadership role two weeks ago after acquiring additional shares of the team. He immediately offered to drop the suit and proposed a return to the bargaining table.
Brian Petrovek, the team’s managing general partner, had previously made a similar offer. But it was rebuffed.
“Hearing Ron Cain’s constructive comments … about trying to find common ground led us to conclude that sitting down for another meeting was a responsible step,” Pratt said. “The dismissal of the lawsuit provides the opportunity for us to determine whether both of our objectives can be achieved.”
Such a compromise may be facilitated by a bill state Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, plans to introduce in the Legislature next year. Alfond said in November that he will propose legislation that would allow arenas with more than 3,000 seats to share the proceeds of on-site liquor sales.
Another factor in negotiations may be the law of supply and demand.
Since the Pirates decamped for Lewiston, the Civic Center has attempted to woo new events and tenants. But as long as the team remains at the Colisee, the events won’t include AHL games; league rules forbid a team in Portland while the Pirates are based within 50 miles.
Pratt has said that the Civic Center only “broke even” on Pirates games. And the arena has begun discussions with another pro sports franchise, the Maine Moose Trax of the upstart United State Lacrosse League. The team hopes to begin playing in Portland next September.
But those talks are preliminary, and it’s uncertain if a fledgling lacrosse team would attract the crowds – and advertising revenue – that the Pirates did in their 20-year stay at the Civic Center.
Meanwhile, the Pirates are seeing fewer fans at their new home. Attendance this season has averaged 2,499, according to the AHL, the second-lowest in the 30-team league. Last year, playing home games at the Civic Center, the team averaged 4,444 attendees.
The team’s parent club, the Coyotes, currently has the lowest average attendance of any in the National Hockey League. The Coyotes have struggled financially since moving to Phoenix in 1996.