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The soccer squad likely to be Maine's next pro sports team scored a business victory this week, though not every fan was rooting for that result.
And plenty more footwork will be needed if the team is to reach its ultimate goal — launching professional play in 2025 as part of the United Soccer League's League One, with home games at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
Nevertheless, at least for Monday night, lovers of "the beautiful game" had reason to celebrate.
By a unanimous vote, the Portland City Council authorized a lease of the 6,000-seat public arena to a private joint venture, Portland United LLC, known as USL to Portland, which is backing the as-yet-unnamed team. Among other terms, it will get to use Fitzpatrick for 10 years rent-free. But the team will also have to make at least $1 million in improvements at the site, which has been used as a stadium since 1930.
Dozens of Maine soccer fans turned out to support the lease proposal, filling the council chamber. In a public comment period, many lauded the pending agreement and the potential economic and social benefits of a pro soccer team in Portland.
"This is a phenomenal deal for our city," said Portland resident Mario Moretto. "This sport can bring people together like no other can."
Taylor Mannix, a soccer coach at Portland High School, said, "It's an investment for, and in, Portland. This is the right sport, at the right time."
"A win-win," said Herb Ivy, a resident of the city's West End. "It's a great deal, and more than fair."
Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, a former USL player, an All-American star at Falmouth High School and one of the partners in Portland United, summed up the case he's made for the team repeatedly over the past four years. "Portland," he said, "is a soccer city."
Hoffman-Johnson and real estate developers Jonathan and Catherine Culley, of Redfern Properties, began working in 2019 to bring a USL League One team to Portland. Tom Caron, a NESN sportscaster and Lewiston native, later joined the investment group.
After raising an initial $500,000, the group began negotiating with the city to come up with a stadium, as required by league rules. There were discussions of building a stadium next to Back Cove, but the idea never went anywhere. A proposal to upgrade and then use Fitzpatrick Stadium seemed like a practical alternative, but stalled because the field wasn't wide enough to meet USL League One specifications.
But in September, the league relented and announced the USL would indeed be coming to Portland.
On Monday, after more than an hour of comments and deliberations, Mayor Kate Snyder had to warn the soccer fans not to cheer — a violation of meeting rules — when the council voted 8-0 in favor of the stadium lease. No vuvuzelas were heard or spotted in the chamber.
While commenters at Monday's meeting were almost unanimous in their support of the deal, those who submitted written comments were just as united against it.
Ten of the 11 submissions in the meeting packet opposed the agreement. Some said it shortchanged students and members of the public who already use the stadium. Other commenters criticized the division of revenue from stadium parking and concessions, which will force Portland to increase its property tax rate by a penny, from $14.41 per $1,000 of assessed value to $14.42.
"Portland needs to negotiate a much better contract with the USL for the use of Fitzpatrick stadium," wrote Portland resident Maggie Wolf. "Not only will our public school students have a much harder time scheduling their use of the field, but our taxes are actually going to increase to support this new league?"
Another resident, Shaelan Donovan, wrote, "What on earth? This contract is an absolute sham. We should NOT be offering free use of any public resources to for-profit groups, and the 'incentives' they’re proposing in exchange can hardly be called such."
Other critics noted that the renovations Portland United is committing to make at Fitzpatrick, including a $500,000 USL-specified light system, are more a benefit to the team than to the public.
Some have also questioned the economic benefits the team may provide. The USL has pledged to generate more than $10 million in tax revenue for the region and create upwards of 50 permanent jobs. But those are general figures the league has trotted out each time it's added a team.
At the meeting, Steven Scharf, a Portland resident and frequent critic of the council, said the 15-year contract was too generous. While the lease initially runs for five years, it gives Portland United the option to renew for two five-year extensions.
But USL League One teams come and go. The USL created League One, essentially a minor league to the elite USL Championship level, in 2019. Since then, about a dozen League One teams acosss the U.S. have played each season. Six teams have folded and ceased operation.
"We're giving away the farm," said Scharf.
On Tuesday morning, hours after the council vote, Hoffman-Johnson described the meeting as an "incredible evening."
"I'm so full of gratitude," he told Mainebiz, acknowledging the support of city staff, council members and Maine's soccer fans.
But there was no time to waste. Hoffman-Johnson and his team have work to do before the first kickoff. Under USL League One franchising requirements, teams typically invest another $6 million or so in preparations, after forking up the initial $5 million franchise fee.
Among next steps, Hoffman-Johnson said, "We’re building out our front office, we’re progressing the stadium improvements procurement and implementation process, we’re working on the brand, we’re working to bring on board our roster of corporate and community partners, and we’ll be opening up season tickets early in the new year … just to name a few!"
Portland United is continuing public outreach that will help determine the name and brand of the new team. A town-hall meeting was already scheduled for Thursday, from 4-6 p.m., at Ri Ra, an Irish pub and soccer hangout at 72 Commercial St. in Portland.
Other new USL teams are also gearing up.
The Brooklyn Football Club recently unveiled its name and branding in preparation for a 2025 start in the USL League One. And another expansion team, USL Texoma, is preparing for play at a converted high-school stadium in Dennison, Texas, near the Oklahoma border. That team, which launched in October, has pledged to unveil its colors and logo next month.
Editor's Note: Senior Staff Writer Renee Cordes contributed to this report.