Time to Go Home
It seems the Portland Pirates are revisiting negotiations with the board of trustees of the Cumberland County Civic Center, and are hoping to move back to their home city of Portland, Maine, after moving to Lewiston following a dispute over a long-term lease agreement. From struggling throughout the season to break into the top eight teams of the Eastern Conference, to rumors of moving to Saco, Maine, it seems the Pirates have gotten themselves into more of a mess by leaving Portland than was probably worth it.
Eastern Conference Woes
It’s no secret that the Pirates are struggling this season, on the ice, and in the stands. The team began the season at the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings, as well as the Eastern Conference. It took weeks for the Pirates to find at least some consistency in their approach to the game, and have slowly been improving their record, but the team still flounders outside of the top 8 rankings, currently floating in 11th place in the conference with a record of 7-5-1-2. The only streak the Pirates had was squashed when the team traveled to Norfolk, Virginia to take on the Admirals for the first time since 2011. The Pirates lost 3-2 in OT to the Admirals on Friday November 22, but were able to pull it together on Saturday the 23rd and defeat the Admirals 4-3 in a shootout win.
Check out a re-cap of Portland vs. Norfolk on Saturday November 23, 2013 below.
Prominent players such as Chris Brown, Andy Miele, Gilbert Brule, Brandon Gormley, and Connor Murphy have all had stints playing with the Phoenix Coyotes this season, which left holes in leadership in the AHL team. While being recalled by Phoenix was a great opportunity for the top-scorers to gain experience at the national level, it also left Portland scrambling to fill the gaps in points. Since returning to Lewiston, Brown and Miele still lead the team in points, with Brule following suit. But these guys can’t, and shouldn’t be the only ones carrying the team. If they can be called up by Phoenix once, they can be called up again, which means the guys left in Maine will have to step up their game to match their competition on the ice every night.
Gaps in leadership and on-ice presence can be worked on with tireless drills in practice, but how can holes in the stands be filled? The Pirates currently have the second worst attendance in the American Hockey League, beating the Abbotsford Heat of Abbotsford, British Columbia. The Heat are currently on top of the Western Conference, so it’s clearly not the Heat’s lack of success driving fans away. Attendance at games since the Pirates moved to Lewiston has almost been embarrassing, averaging at 2,680. Their new home, the Androscoggin Bank Colisée, seats 3,677. In an attempt to attract locals to the Colisée, or to bribe fans in the Portland area to make the trek to Lewiston, ticket prices have been lowered from previous seasons, averaging $12 a seat, but that still doesn’t seem like enough of a bargain to watch the struggling Pirates.
Fans were looking forward to watching the Pirates play in the newly renovated Civic Center, which holds 6,733 seats, nearly twice what the Colisée holds.
But What About Saco?
For a while, it seemed like the next move for the Pirates would be from Lewiston to Saco, Maine. This isn’t the first time Saco has been thrown into the mix, and talks of moving the team to Saco had surfaced when long-term lease options were being tossed around between the CCCC and the Pirates.
The Pirates are also no strangers to Saco. The team practices at the MHG Ice Centre on Lund Road, where the property up for discussion lies.
— Portland Pirates (@PortlandPirates) November 24, 2013
The city of Saco recently voted 6-1 on an option that would allow the Pirates to purchase approximately 13 acres from the city, for $105,000. This land (which sits on dead end Lund Road) would be developed into a potentially $50 million facility with 4,000 seats. Saco is about 20 minutes south of Portland, compared to the 50 minutes it takes to get to Lewiston. But even then, Saco is not a central location for the Pirates’ originally established Portland fan base. It’s argued that the demographic of the Saco, Scarborough, and Old Orchard Beach area is a younger demographic, which would draw in more patrons to a brand new arena.
But the Pirates have called Portland home for 20 years, which means the commute to a game for those in surrounding Portland suburbs, such as Freeport, Yarmouth, Cumberland or Falmouth, could be as long as 40 minutes (not including traffic). And why spend $50 million on a new arena, when there’s one (that holds almost 3,000 more people than the proposed Saco arena would hold) sitting unoccupied in Portland?
The Stalemate: Portland Pirates vs. the CCCC
The Legal Background
A bit of history on the subject, which is definitely a touchy one with Portland Pirates fans (maybe not “Lewiston/Auburn” Pirates fans). Allegedly, the dispute arose after the Portland Pirates organization couldn’t reach an agreement with the board of trustees at the CCCC regarding a long-term lease for the Pirates, who had been tenants for 20 years (since 1993).
An unbinding agreement to extend the Pirates’ lease was drawn up at the end of last season with unsatisfactory terms, and over the summer, the organization was informed they would not be able to gain profits from alcohol sales at the Civic Center (because the team is not included on the state liquor license). The two parties had come to terms over revenue from food sales, but being denied the cut they would’ve received from beverages seemed to be the tipping point.
Since then, a lawsuit has been filed against the CCCC by the Portland Pirates, claiming the venue didn’t hold up their end of the original lease agreement that was drawn up in the spring. The Pirates announced they would spend their entire 38-game home season in Lewiston. Originally, they were just going to play their first 13 home games in Lewiston while renovations were being completed on the Civic Center, but once the legal disputes came to a head, it was clear they would not reach an agreement any time soon. It was decided it would be better for the organization to abandon ship and take some time away from the Civic Center while the legal battle waged on.
The New Civic Center
The Cumberland County Civic Center is currently undergoing a $34 million renovation, which is expected to be completed by January 2014. The renovations include a new concourse level pavilion, new arena seats, a club room and suites, a more accessible box office, and new locker rooms. More handicap accessibility, a brand new southeast entrance (replacing the steep set of stairs that issued anyone who braved them a death sentence in icy January), premium seating, and escalators are also being added to the venue. The CCCC was definitely overdue for a makeover, with all aspects of the venue indicative of its 1977 opening. To be fair to the venue’s only tenant (at the time), and their fans, a renovation was necessary for the Pirates to continue to play there.
The Colisée is basically a glorified gymnasium. It used to house the Lewiston Maineiacs of the QMJHL, but the venue couldn’t lend itself to the success of a Junior Hockey team. Was it ever realistic for the Pirates to be successful there? Again, the Civic Center holds 6,733 fans, and with the new renovations including club and premium seating, that number may slightly increase. Compared to the 3,677 the Colisée holds, it seems like a no brainer for the Pirates to want to get the hell out of Lewiston.
Progressing Towards a New Agreement
In an attempt to further negotiations with the Civic Center, the Portland Pirates organization has put forth an offer to drop the current lawsuit it has against the board of trustees. Talks should happen before December 3, 2013, and the upcoming deadline was put in place to encourage talks to happen sooner, rather than later. Because the Pirates have already agreed to a deal with the Colisée to finish out the team’s remaining home games for the season, an agreement with the Civic Center, if any, would address the team’s future in upcoming seasons, beginning with the 2014-2015 season.
The Right Move
Financially, this is the smartest move for both the city of Portland, and the team itself. Not having home games in downtown Portland has already hit the surrounding area. Restaurants and bars that would normally be filled with patrons on weeknights before or after a home game are losing thousands of dollars in business, not to mention the boost it gave these establishments on the weekends.
The cost of building a new facility out of pocket in Saco is just ludicrous. A project that could potentially cost $50 million and take years to develop leaves the Pirates still struggling at the Colisée until they could move into their permanent home. While the organization would own the facility and not have to answer to an outside board of trustees, is that difference worth millions and millions of dollars?
Portland is the home of the Pirates. It’s just that simple. The stubbornness of either side to budge on a long-term lease agreement over the off season has only hurt both parties. The newly renovated Civic Center has no tenant. The brand new locker rooms and club suites and numerous other upgrades won’t be appreciated as much as it would be by the Pirates team and their fans.
For the Portland Pirates organization to offer to drop the law suit against the Civic Center means that the team is desperate for a venue change. If the team was serious about leaving Portland for good, a name change likely would’ve come with the move to Lewiston, because as all Mainers know, Lewiston is most certainly not the same place as Portland.
Be sure to like the Cumberland County Civic Center’s Facebook page for more updates and photos of the construction and renovation plans.
Portland, Maine native. Bruins contributor for The Hockey Writers and Pittsburgh Penguins and AHL writer for Puck Rant. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram for more hockey-related posts! @smithwhitney