A new arena for the 'Guins?
As the details of the financing plan for a new hockey arena in Pittsburgh were unveiled, I, like many, was stunned with the sheer audacity of the inflated numbers as well as the assumption that such a plan could actually garner political support.
But as I examined the event in greater detail, I believe that I understand what actually took place at the announcement — and what was directly stated, in a subtle manner, with a deafening “silence.”
I am convinced that this plan is doomed to the same fate as many grapes on the arbor in my backyard during the recent heat-spell: They slowly wither on the vine and disappear.
First, let's go back to August 1999 when Mario Lemieux was putting together the deal to rescue the team from bankruptcy and protect his position as an unsecured creditor.
As his negotiating team was working with the Sports & Exhibition Authority and SMG, the original agreement did, in fact, include the language that financing for a new area would be in place by June 2002. Subsequently, two addendums were added that changed this requirement. The word “endeavor” to provide a financing plan was added to the SEA. obligation, as well as a sentence that stated the Penguins would be required to provide a “significant” contribution of up-front money to any plan.
With this, the plan was no longer an ironclad deal to build a new arena, but a pledge that was clearly open to negotiation and interpretation. The SEA was only required to attempt to put together some type of a financing plan, not actually deliver a new arena.
Now let's fast-forward to the latest financing-plan announcement.
Being extremely adept at his work, SEA Executive Director Steve Leeper stated very clearly at the start of the news conference that in providing this plan he was, in fact, fulfilling the contractual obligation of the 1999 agreement with the Penguins. He had diligently “endeavored” to put together a plan that could build a new arena. He didn't state that anyone supported this plan, or if all of the stated assumptions could ever be passed at the state or local level. It was simply a plan that could work — hypothetically — if all of the required political support was present and the required tax revenue was available.
LOTS OF SILENCE
Since that news conference there has been an almost complete silence surrounding support or rejection the plan. Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy stated that it looked to be a starting point for discussions. Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey simply stated that he doubted that the added dollars from the Regional Asset District could be diverted. And state Sen. Jay Costa said that he doubted that the state could come up with the required money.
Other than these few comments, a host of other local politicians who were very vocal in the past concerning stadium funding have had nothing to say regarding the arena plan. Contrast this with the day that Plan B was announced. City, county, state and federal politicians were all on hand, as well as a host of business leaders. It was a gala event that ran the political gamut from U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum to Murphy.
In the end, when Gov. Tom Ridge gained the needed support from the state Legislature, I think I would be safe in stating that every local city, county (except Larry Dunn), state and federal politician, both Republican and Democrat, supported Plan B.
This overwhelming support for Plan B certainly wasn't there from the start. With determination and tenacity we pushed and pulled it along every step of the way, symbolizing dastardly scoundrels to some and visionary leaders to others. Plan B had three “champions” in Mike Dawida, Murphy and myself. With many trials and tribulations, we moved it forward and three impressive structures now stand as a testimony to our effort and teamwork.
A 'GREAT GULF'
Comparing the Plan B scenario to the events that have been unfolding of late concerning a new arena and you'll see that a great gulf exists between them.
I believe that this current plan was hammered together not as an effort to build a new arena but to meet a contractual obligation. I do not intend to state that the plan is flawed in its design; Steve Leeper did a good job. What I mean to say is that it is so detailed and truthful that it clearly exposes the absolute absurdity of the whole situation.
The plan requires the diversion and use of city, county and state revenue that may or may not exist, as well as no up-front contribution from the Penguins — a team that was bankrupt three years ago and is currently losing money. All of this effort to replace a facility that is in good repair, was recently refurbished, and accommodates all its scheduled events in an excellent manner.
Furthermore, the plan is missing one vital component for success — it has no political “champions” to move it forward and I don't think that we'll see any lining up soon. I expect that there will continue to be silence surrounding the issue and I can't fault the strategy. Why should anyone get involved at all at this point• The plan cannot be implemented because the required funds are simply not available and will not be for the foreseeable future.
I'm certain that the Penguins at some point will threaten public officials with talk of moving. But that won't change the fact that the money and political will simply don't exist. At some point, the franchise is going to have to face the fact that it must base its future plans upon — and surrounding — the current Mellon Arena and make the best of it.