This is not how Jim Leo planned to leave the stage.

Operations manager for the past 32 years at Cross Insurance Arena, Leo is due to retire at the end of August. His crew was furloughed months ago, not long after the Maine Mariners played their last ECHL mid-level professional league hockey game on March 10 and the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

“Myself and two assistants, we had a huge list of projects we were going to get done for the summer,” he said. “But as a one-man show, there’s only so much I can do. Plus, we can’t spend any money because we’re not making any money.”

That’s the dilemma facing most of the venues in Greater Portland that count on crowds buying tickets to sporting events. Even if games were being played – they’re not – state guidelines designed to halt the spread of coronavirus limit gatherings to no more than 50 people. COVID-19 cares not about bond repayment schedules or operating expenses.

While Cross Insurance Arena is largely quiet, the Portland Expo sports and exhibition venue is currently being used by the city of Portland as a temporary shelter. Adjacent Hadlock Field offers no baseball, but Portland Sea Dogs team employees have come up with creative ways to generate at least some revenue with curbside takeout of concession food and with an interesting twist on golf.

Leo has kept busy. He has replaced ballasts and built new racks for the curved Plexiglas at the end of the hockey benches. He oversaw installation of a new ice chiller system and will guide replacement of a fire pump system.

Originally constructed in 1977 as the Cumberland County Civic Center, Cross Insurance Arena underwent extensive renovations in 2013 and 2014 after county taxpayers approved a $33 million bond.

Until the pandemic hit, the arena was on pace to break even for the first time in more than a decade, according to a letter sent in June by the five elected county commissioners to Gov. Janet Mills requesting financial assistance.

“We were definitely going to make budget,” said arena general manager Melanie Henkes. “We were heavier on the back end of the event season. From March 10 to the end of the fiscal year (June 30) we had 23 events ready to go and an additional concert that had not been announced. Everybody was excited to see how the spring was going to play out, and then all of a sudden everybody wasn’t so excited.”

Jim Leo, the operations manager at Cross Insurance Arena, first started working in security at the Portland venue in 1981. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Cancellation of those two dozen events meant the county lost $1.5 million in gross revenue and a little more than $400,000 in projected profit. The Mariners lost three home dates and were closing in on a playoff berth that would have meant more home games, each resulting in another $4,830 rental payment for use of the arena. As it stands now, the arena’s next scheduled event is a professional bull riding show on Sept. 22 and 23, but that remains uncertain because of public health guidelines.

Ultimately, Cumberland County taxpayers are responsible for making up any operating deficits, as well as continuing the bond repayment schedule through 2037. In late February, the county took advantage of low interest rates and refinanced the primary bond for a savings of just over $80,000 this year and a total of $1.7 million over the remaining 18 years, according to the county’s deputy manager of finance and administration, Alex Kimball.

Annual payments on the bond are a little more than $2.2 million.

“The county has every intention of making those bond payments,” Kimball said, “and does not foresee a disruption.”

Because the arena is publicly owned, it did not qualify for an emergency payroll loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which prompted the furlough of eight of arena’s 15 full-time employees.

The arena’s only event since the final Mariners game was a blood drive in June. The original plan in March was to use arena as an alternative care site for COVID-19 patients, should local hospitals be overwhelmed.

Empty seats mean no revenue at Cross Insurance Arena. The Portland arena’s only event since the final Mariners game on March 10 was a blood drive in June. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“It’s really kind of a blessing that we weren’t needed,” Henkes said. “None of the implementation ever happened, but all the planning did. Hospitals did their walk-through, the CDC did their walk-through. The Army Corps of Engineers had to come in to check the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system and the air flow. If numbers spike again, we’re ready to pull the trigger.”

The Portland Expo, home to the Maine Red Claws G League basketball team, lost regular-season dates as well as any playoff games. The Red Claws pay the city of Portland $2,910 per game in rent. City Manager Jon Jennings said necessary roof repair is finishing up and mortar work on the wall closest to Hadlock Field is scheduled to begin in August.

The prior roof was installed in 1984 with a projected life of 20 years. Leaks have caused problems, including one in January 2019 that forced postponement of a Red Claws game. The new roof cost $350,000 and included new access and louver covers. The north wall masonry project, pegged at $200,000, is the final piece of an eight-year waterproofing and repainting plan.

“We’re slowly trying to invest in the building,” Jennings said. “Ideally, we’d like to make it a year-round facility, but that means a new HVAC system. Before COVID-19, that was the direction we were headed.”

Jennings said he has had conversations with representatives of companies interested in using the Expo to hold e-sports events for video gamers. The city operates the Expo at an annual loss of $174,103 while Hadlock Field turns a profit of $68,034 and Fitzpatrick Stadium does likewise at $80,357, according to Brendan O’Connell, Portland’s finance director.

Despite not playing any baseball in 2020, the Sea Dogs not only paid their annual rent ($150,000) to the city, they also footed the bill for a major upgrade to LED lighting. The Sea Dogs are the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.

New LED stadium lights turn on at dusk at Hadlock Field recently. “It’s just sad that no one’s been able to appreciate them,” says Bill Burke, the Sea Dogs chairman. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“To keep our facility up to speed and to keep the Red Sox happy, we bit the bullet and paid for them,” said Bill Burke, Sea Dogs chairman. “It’s just sad that no one’s been able to appreciate them.”

Burke declined to reveal the cost of the new lights. Team president Geoff Iacuessa described it as a significant investment but also said it should cut electricity costs and be more environmentally friendly.

“It’s something we talked about for several years,” he said. “We decided it was an investment that needed to be made, from a player development standpoint and even a fan standpoint.”

Meanwhile, back across town, Cross Insurance Arena remains dark. Expenses have been pared back to a bare minimum. The ice came up shortly after the last Mariners game and the air conditioning has been turned off. Leo, who first started working security for the building in 1981, will keep an eye on things for another month.

“It really, really sucks to have this be the way that I end a career,” he said. “But I understand.”

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