Portland hockey team celebrates $34m publicly funded arena renovation by moving to Springfield

The owners of the AHL Portland Pirates (that’s Portland, Maine) announced yesterday that they were selling the team to new owners who would move it to Springfield (that’s Springfield, Massachusetts), and everybody in Portland is understandably upset. Some are upset because they’re worried about the effect on local restaurants, which is almost certainly overblown — people in Portland have still got to eat, and they may even spend more of their entertainment dollars eating out now that they don’t have minor-league hockey to occupy their time. Others are upset because of this:

The Pirates, whose season ended Sunday, just completed the second year of a five-year lease with the county. The lease has provisions in the event the team breaks the agreement that limit the damages the arena can claim to $100,000, according to Mitch Berkowitz, chair of the board of trustees for county-owned CIA. He said an executive session of the board is scheduled for Thursday morning.

[Portland Mayor Ethan] Strimling said taxpayers should be upset that they helped pay for a $34 million renovation of the arena in 2013, only to see its anchor tenant leave without warning a few years later.

“Tens of millions of dollars went into that facility,” he said. “When taxpayers put that much money into a project we should have at least been called to the table.”

Yes, you have every right to be upset, Mayor Strimling, though getting mad at the team owners for exercising a $100,000 out clause without calling you first is probably not the most productive way to express your anger. How about getting mad at whichever Cumberland County leaders agreed to spend $34 million on arena renovations for a minor-league hockey team without even getting them to sign a long-term lease that would ensure they stayed in town? In fact, the renovations were approved in 2011 (with one local business leader noting at the time that “the prospect of no Portland Pirates … was just a specter over everybody”), but the lease wasn’t settled on until three years later, which is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

The good news is that the county only breaks even on hockey games anyway, so this will free up some dates for concerts, which could be more lucrative. The bad news is that Cumberland County voters approved spending $34 million on arena upgrades in order to keep their hockey team, and now they have no hockey team. The lesson here: If you’re going to do a quid pro quo, make sure you get the quo before you spend the quid.