Monday, February 25, 2008

The Bollard

February 24, 2008

Backdoor pass

City drafts lease for D-League basketball team on the sly

By Chris Busby

With no public discussion or vote, city officials have drafted a lease offer for a group of investors who want to start a minor league National Basketball Association franchise in Portland. The city council's three-member Finance Committee is scheduled to meet behind closed doors to discuss the lease terms on Feb. 29.

The investment group has its eyes on the publicly owned Portland Exposition Building (the Expo), on Park Avenue. The group's principles include TD Banknorth chairman Bill Ryan Sr.; his son, Bill Ryan Jr., owner of Oxford Plains Speedway; and Jon Jennings, a former Boston Celtics assistant coach. Portland attorney and former mayor Bill Troubh is involved in the group's negotiations with the city, which he said are already underway.

That's a surprise to at least two members of the Finance Committee, City Councilors John Anton and Dave Marshall, both of whom said there's been no formal discussion or vote on the matter. The committee's chairman, Councilor Jim Cohen, was out of town and unavailable for comment Friday.

On Friday, city Finance Director Duane Kline sent an e-mail to the three committee members, City Manager Joe Gray, and other city finance and legal staff seeking to arrange a closed-door "executive session" next Friday "to review the terms of the proposed NBA lease." The session was requested by Gray, Kline noted in the e-mail, who did not return a call seeking comment.

Anton and Marshall are questioning why a lease for the public facility has been drawn up without the public's knowledge or assent. "I think it would certainly be more appropriate for the people representing the citizens of Portland to decide if this is the direction we want to go in before we start investing lots of resources," said Marshall.

Asked if he felt the matter was being handled appropriately, Anton responded, "that's an excellent question. I am interested in the policy context in which this potential decision is being made, and I haven't seen that yet."

It's unclear whether the lease would entail any cost to the city, or whether any current users of the facility – like middle school and high school sports programs – would be displaced to accommodate the schedule of an NBA Development League (called D-League) franchise.

According to a description on the Web site of the city's Public Assembly Facilities Division (portlandevents.com), "today the [Expo] is busier than ever," hosting over 185 events, including trade shows, conferences, concerts and sporting events. Built in 1914, the Expo is the second-oldest arena in continuous operation in the U.S., according to the city, and has had everyone from James Brown to President George Bush grace its stage.

The Expo's current schedule shows that the facility is booked for nearly every Friday and Saturday night in February and March, mostly for student athletic events. The D-League's season runs from November to April, and minor league teams covet weekend home games, when attendance is generally higher, so scheduling conflicts would be likely.

The investment group, accompanied by D-League officials, visited Portland on Jan. 31 and received the red-carpet treatment from city and state officials. Mayor Ed Suslovic and Gov. John Baldacci welcomed the group at the front steps of City Hall, accompanied by a bagpiper and an Irish dance troupe. (The investors hope to strike an affiliation deal with the Boston Celtics.)

"An NBA D-League team would be the perfect compliment to the Sea Dogs and Pirates by providing Maine sports fans young and old a local basketball team to root for," Suslovic said that day, according to a city press release. (Suslovic did not return a call seeking comment.) "We're ready and hope to be a part of the NBA family."

The investment group is doing the same. The Ryans have not been granted D-League franchise rights by NBA officials yet, and there are not enough D-League teams near the East Coast to make a franchise here financially viable, given travel costs. Most of the league's 14 teams are in western states; the closest to Maine is the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

Troubh, who also represents the Sea Dogs' owners, said there'd need to be at least three or four teams in the eastern United States to make a Portland franchise viable. A Portland team would probably begin its season in 2009, rather than this fall, though he said "there's been no decision" on that yet.

The D-League has announced plans to add two franchises this year. One was just announced, an as-yet-unnamed team that will play in Reno, Nevada. The other franchise has not been announced.

In addition to the Expo, the investment group was also interested in the Cumberland County Civic Center, where the Portland Pirates play during the same time of year. Assistant County Manager and spokesman Bill Whitten could not be reached for comment Friday.

Asked if the investors are still considering the Civic Center, Troubh simply said, "the negotiations are with the city."


Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard. He can be reached at editor@thebollard.com.

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