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Joseph Sabino Mistick

The public's stake in the Penguins deal

| Saturday, June 13, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that the hockey team is for sale, the public quickly was assured that there is no danger the franchise will relocate. “Move along. Nothing to see here,” seemed to be the official line.

But sometimes a hockey team is more than just a hockey team. In this case, the Penguins also own the development rights to 28 acres of publicly owned land at the old Civic Arena site, an asset that will increase the Penguins' sales price by millions.

“That's where the value is for a potential investor,” John Clark, a sports management professor at Robert Morris University, told the Trib.

Those development rights, given to the Penguins in 2007 as part of what Clark called “a sweetheart deal,” always have been controversial. It started with the glaringly inappropriate decision to trust the most valuable site in the city to an organization that never ever has developed anything.

Along the way, the Penguins have found it hard to stay on their skates on the unfamiliar ice of urban development. They clashed with the community, eventually reaching an agreement, then immediately renouncing it. That invited a lawsuit by the Hill District CDC, which resulted in another, albeit better, agreement for the community.

And the Penguins' greatest victory, the decision by U.S. Steel to build its headquarters on the site, was actually the work of elected leaders from the city, county, state and federal governments. But even that success was sullied when renderings of the proposed building showed a design worthy of a suburban office park instead of this premier location.

It is pointless to grouse about the past. But the taxpayers must be protected from the Penguins. As the marketing begins, the team might try to sweeten an already sweet deal for even greater profit. Or it might seek relief from the development timetable that requires them to build by a certain date or begin to lose their rights. These are really bad ideas.

But the good news is that the development rights finally could be placed in the hands of a real developer. And this time around, if the owners want to renegotiate any aspect of the deal, our elected leaders must protect the public first — because this time, the whole town is watching.

But what about all that public investment, handed over to the Penguins, now being sold for the owners' private profit? Is it fair for the Penguins to keep all that profit?

It is hard to argue against the equitable notion that the taxpayers have a claim to some share of that additional profit. The development rights were freely given to the Penguins, though the land was bought with tax money paid over generations by hardworking average Pittsburghers.

It might be time for our leaders to claim our stake. In this town that has stayed true to solid values and never lost its way, fair dealing still counts for something.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (joemistick.com).

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