Maine Hockey Journal

Neal Pratt Interview — 2/23/10

Maine Hockey Journal had a chance to speak with Neal Pratt, Chair of the Civic Center Trustees. Here is a transcript of that conversation as we discussed Cumberland County position in lease negotiations with the Portland Pirates.

Is there any update on the lease negotiation with the Pirates?
“We continue to communicate, but we haven’t had any substantive developments”

Is there a timeline to when you feel the situation needs to be resolved before moving to a plan B? Is there a plan B? “If there is a plan B from our perspective, it would only be if, and when the Pirates decided they were going to move to Albany. Our goal is to have them here. If they make that decision then we’d have to figure something out. We don’t have a firm deadline from our perspective, but I don’t know that the Pirates do either.”

How much of the lease negotiations hang on renovations with the Civic Center?“We both recognize that the lease expires at the end of April, but the unique thing is the role that the renovations to the facility that we’re exploring play. Part of what the (County) and the Pirate are trying to accomplish is to make some significant renovations in the building, and we’re taking steps toward that collectively.”

“Part of the issue that we face is economic because it’s a tough time in the economy. One of the potential solutions to that for both sides is to enhance revenues and to come up with some opportunities to make the financial picture better for both sides.”

“The difficult issue is the timing of the renovation isn’t compatible with the timing of the lease negotiations so part of the decision making is going to have to be based on faith that we’re going to be on the same page, and there will be some opportunities in the future to make up for some financial difficulties both sides are experiencing right now.”

Brian Petrovek has made mention to getting “skin in the game”. From the County’s perspective what does that infer and has he even made an offer to purchase the Civic Center?
“They’ve never made a formal offer to buy the building. It’s a public facility so if the building were sold – which nobody is considering – it would have to be marketed and I’m not sure if the Trustee would have the authority to sell it.”

“The governance model – how the Civic Center is operated – is a product of Maine law and has worked well because the goal is to keep it a public facility that is available to all citizens, not corporate types who can afford the higher end concessions and higher end amenities. We all know what’s happen in Fenway Park; it’s certainly improved in many respects, but try to get in there with your family for less than 500 dollars.”

“What we consider to be (the trustees) obligation to the public is to make the facility available for events such as graduations, open ice skating and schoolboy and schoolgirl basketball tournaments. Things that may not be the most profitable, if you’re looking at it from purely a profit standpoint, but a number of those things have value to the community. Part of my concern is that you’d lose some of that, if you much more focused on a profit.”

“33-years ago when (the state legislature) set up this structure and decided to build and finance this facility, the intent was to do what it’s doing, a multi-purpose facility with a community component.”

Will any part of the renovations have to go to the voters?
“Only if we need to public financing so the answer to that in reality is yes. Part of the message would be incumbent on those in support of the renovations would be to persuade the public, not only culturally, but financially it’s in the best interest of the community to go ahead with (renovations).”

“If we believe in it, we need to try and sell it to the public, convince the public that it’s worth wild because of the return on investment. Even now, the facility generates 12-to-15 million dollars per year in economic activity in the local area. That’s a big number, and if the facility was to be shut down as an example that’s 12-to-15 million dollars that no longer exist in local restaurants, hotels and all the other various events that the Civic Center holds.”

Does the Civic Center need a primary tenant?
“There are different opinions on that. There are some who believe that the Civic Center would make more money without a primary tenant because you’d have 37 or 40 dates available, and depending on the size of the event it wouldn’t take very many events to replace and exceed the revenue of the primary tenant.”

“I don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t know it’s not true. I tend to believe the hockey franchise adds a whole dimension to the community that’s extremely favorable, one that makes Portland a destination point, and if we lose that it’s a loss of something right now that we can point too like the Sea Dogs or Red Claws. It’s a place to go and have multiple entertainment opportunities.

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