Lemieux to meet with Pa. officials

| Friday, Dec. 29, 2006

Penguins owners agreed to meet next week with Gov. Ed Rendell and local leaders to talk about how to pay for an Uptown arena that could keep the team in Pittsburgh, according to a letter they sent Thursday evening.

Owners Mario Lemieux and Ronald Burkle warned that "time is of the essence" and said they are "in the process of exploring all of our options." The Penguins' lease at Mellon Arena expires in June, and team officials have said they will consider relocating.

"It is essential for the future of this franchise that we negotiate an arena deal that makes economic sense for the long term," the owners wrote.

Team officials were responding to a request from Rendell, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato for a meeting next Thursday, when Rendell comes to town. The elected officials said they want to have an arena deal in place by March 31.

Lemieux and Burkle said in their letter that the team needs an answer "well in advance" of that deadline.

Megan Dardanell, spokeswoman for Onorato, welcomed the team's quick response.

"That's just obviously what we were hoping would happen," she said.

The elected officials' letter originated with Rendell's office, but Ravenstahl and Onorato helped draft it. Rendell spokeswoman Kate Philips and Ravenstahl spokesman Dick Skrinjar declined comment on the letter, dated Wednesday.

"We remain solidly committed to keeping the Penguins at home in Pittsburgh," Rendell, Ravenstahl and Onorato wrote. "We believe the time has come for those discussions to begin and to proceed in an expeditious manner."

The Penguins had partnered with St. Louis-based Isle of Capri Casinos, which offered to pay $290 million for an arena if it won the slots license for Pittsburgh.

Isle of Capri is in the process of releasing the hockey team from its obligation not to discuss an alternate arena plan.

"It's merely a formality at this point," said spokesman Les McMackin. "We're certainly not holding it up right now."

In their letter, the elected officials reiterated the 30-year, $290 million arena deal -- often called Plan B -- that they first presented in March:

= Majestic Star Casino, which won the slots license, would pay $7.5 million a year toward the arena.

= The state would provide $7 million a year from an economic development fund backed by slots money.

= The team would have to pay, too -- $8.5 million upfront and $2.9 million a year, while forgoing $1.16 million a year in naming rights.

"We appreciate the positive tone of your recent public comments and look forward to seeing what has been described as a plan that is significantly better than the original 'Plan B,' " Lemieux and Burkle wrote.

They asked for the meeting to take place in the late afternoon and to include team President Ken Sawyer and consultants David Morehouse and Chuck Greenberg.

The city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority owns the land for an Uptown arena and plans to begin demolishing properties there next month. The authority expects to have the land ready for a groundbreaking before September.

"We have acquired the necessary land within the footprint designated by the Penguins and have continued to work on the design and financing plans," the elected officials wrote.

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