Portland may well land another pro hockey team to replace the departed Pirates in time for the 2017-18 season, but trustees of Cross Insurance Arena are preparing for the possibility of more than one winter without a primary tenant.
On Tuesday, Godfrey Wood revealed that a potential lead investor pulled out of a deal that might have led to an East Coast Hockey League expansion franchise. Wood, who helped bring the American Hockey League Pirates to Portland from Baltimore in 1993, has been working with Brad Church to secure an ECHL team.
Church said Wednesday that the unnamed investor was encouraged with their business plan and the history of the market, but pulled out for ?personal? reasons.
?The reasons he didn?t cross the finish line weren?t economic,? said Church, former chief operating officer of the AHL Pirates.
Church said his focus has changed to buying an existing ECHL franchise instead of scrambling to meet a late September application deadline for an expansion franchise.
?We?ve got a handful of guys willing to invest in the team and willing to be part of an ownership group,? he said. ?We still need a few more people.?
Should such a sale and relocation happen, a new team would have to work around dates already booked at the arena for the 2017-18 season.
Neal Pratt, chair of the board of trustees? strategic development committee, said he emphasized to Wood and Church that Spectra, the company hired to manage the county-owned arena, would continue to schedule ?anything we get that is a money maker and you are going to have to work around that.?
?They understand that. We have no placeholder for them. We are aggressively marketing the facility and trying to attract as many quality events as we can. To the extent hockey becomes one, fantastic. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to fill the arena.?
As far back as 2010, when trustees proposed a $33 million bond to renovate the arena, they considered the possibility of an extended stretch without professional hockey, Pratt said. Cumberland County voters convincingly approved the bond in November 2011 and work was completed in February 2014, shortly after the end of a protracted and at times contentious lease negotiation.
?The renovation was presented on its own merits,? Pratt said. ?Certainly, hockey was part of the discussion ? not the Pirates. We did not want to give the Pirates a stronger negotiating position by essentially pre-wiring their position in the then-Civic Center so that they come to us and say, ?Now we?re here and you can?t get rid of us so you have to make these concessions in our lease negotiations.? We didn?t want to give them that power. So we were very cautious about that.?
Some argued the arena could make more money without hockey than with it. A 2010 economic study projected more income from concerts, ice shows and high school or college events than from Pirates hockey games. Pratt said the board always supported hockey, however.
?Having the building active 38 nights a year is significant,? he said. ?Culturally, it provides great opportunity. It certainly brings a lot of money into the local economy.?
The University of Maine plans three college hockey games at the arena this season, two in November and one in February. Local high school teams will also use the ice for practices and games.
With prime Friday and Saturday nights no longer reserved for hockey, the arena can be more flexible for concerts and other high-revenue events.
?New options and new opportunities are available to the facility that weren?t before,? said Chris Hall, chief executive officer for the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce. ?It?s not in a bad place right now, not since the renovation.?
Pratt said because of the renovations, ?we?re now doing business with concert promoters that we haven?t done business with since the ?70s and ?80s. The taxpayers, in my judgment, made the right decision. That decision is going to put us in a far better place, with or without hockey, to continue making this a gathering place for the community and a place where people can be proud.?
Portland mayor Ethan Strimling hopes pro hockey returns.
?Having a hockey team down there is important not only to the Cross Insurance Arena, it?s important to local businesses,? he said. ?You?re going to get a few thousand people for each of those games.?
The arena ended the fiscal year that ended June 30 with an operating loss of $85,000, substantially lower than the $600,000 deficit run up in 2014-15. Significantly, the arena earned about $40,000 from hockey operations during the 2015-16 season, a bit more than expected.
?It was our objective to break even,? Pratt said. ?Because when we talk about losing money, we?re talking about the taxpayers.?
The hockey surplus does not include a $100,000 liquidated damage provision still owed by former Pirates owner Ron Cain for breaching the lease, which was scheduled to run through 2019. Pratt said he thinks there is no real dispute over that stipulation, which the trustees insisted including to guard against a mid-season departure.
The Pirates ?were telling us no other team in the AHL has this, that you guys are going overboard,? said Pratt, who said the whole notion of a break-even lease means that few damages are left if a team departs after a season?s end. ?I think we did a pretty good job trying to protect the taxpayers and the facility the best we could.?