Portland, Red Claws to extend Expo lease; Thompson's Point move still expected

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PORTLAND — Despite an agreement to extend the Maine Red Claws’ lease for up to 10 years and upgrade seats at the Portland Exposition Building, the developer of Thompson’s Point still expects the pro basketball team to become part of the 32-acre project along the Fore River.

“I think it is a very smart business move,” developer Chris Thompson said of the city’s lease agreement with the team, which could extend to 2029.

The deal, which would take effect when the team’s existing lease expires in 2019, was unanimously recommended by the City Council Finance Committee on Feb. 12, and must be approved by the full City Council.

The five-year lease, with another five-year option, also commits the NBA Development League team to spend $366,000 to replace bleachers with seats with backs and armrests in the center-court areas. The change will reduce the Expo’s capacity by 250 people.

Team majority owner William Ryan Jr. said the smaller capacity, which is still more than needed for most other Expo events, is not a problem.

“It is a matter of patron comfort,” Ryan said. “For long-term, people want comfort.”

Ryan Tuesday said the team will not charge patrons more for the upgraded seats, which would be manufactured by Hussey Seating Co. of North Berwick.

The Red Claws, which are affiliated with the Boston Celtics, are leading their division in their sixth season. Although playing in one of the league’s smaller venues, Ryan said Portland is a good fit for the team and market.

Ryan is also a partner with Thompson in the estimated $100 million Forefront at Thompson’s Point development on 32 acres near the Fore River and Interstate 295.

The Red Claws were a frequent mention in the Thompson’s Point development plans. Initial plans called for a 3,500-seat venue, and the parking arrangements and number of spaces were a large part of Planning Board discussions before the site plan was approved last year.

Ryan attended the Feb. 12 committee meeting, but did not comment when asked what the new Expo lease means for the team’s future. On Tuesday, Thompson said the team is still expected to become a tenant.

“From our perspective, the events center building has been and is part of our development plan,” he said. “The feeling is still the same as ever, it is on us to get the ducks in a row.”

Under terms of the proposed Expo lease, the city must approve the new seating design and will help with the installation. It would also retain ownership of the seats if the Red Claws terminate the lease before it expires.

The lease also contains 1.5 percent annual increases to reimburse the city for staff at Red Claws games. The team would be charged more than $69,000 per season beginning in 2020 and $77,500 in the final lease year.

“They have immediate needs and things to be addressed,” Thompson said. “We fully support what they are doing, and it leaves the Expo a better place than how they found it.”

Thompson said the infrastructure work at Thompson’s Point is mostly completed, negotiations with new tenants are underway for existing buildings, and he hopes hotel construction can begin later in the year.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.