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Pens may have deal Uptown, official says

Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007

HARRISBURG - The Penguins apparently have cut a deal with public officials to finance an Uptown arena that would keep the team in Pittsburgh, a state senator said Wednesday.

"I'm hearing that a deal could be made any day, which makes me suspect it's all about crossing the t's and dotting the i's," said Sen. Wayne Fontana, a Brookline Democrat who serves on the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority, which would own the arena. "I don't know that there are any major hurdles left. It's all just little things."

Fontana said he expects officials to announce a deal today or Friday.

The Penguins had no comment. Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato would not comment, his spokesman Kevin Evanto said.

"People involved directly in the negotiations are not discussing anything publicly," said Dick Skrinjar, spokesman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Fontana said Gov. Ed Rendell and Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, a California billionaire, have held "a lot of phone conversations." The two worked together on the Democratic National Committee, and that connection helped ease tension from a Jan. 18 meeting over how to divide arena revenue, Fontana said.

The Penguins balked at sharing money from parking and the developmental rights for the Mellon Arena site with Majestic Star Casino owner Don Barden, who won the state license to build a Pittsburgh slots casino and will contribute money toward an arena. Fontana said the two sides have found "a middle ground" over the parking revenues and development rights.

Late last year, Rendell said he would work to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh after state gambling regulators dismissed a casino proposal that would have built an arena entirely with slots money, state Gaming Control Board Chairman Tad Decker disclosed yesterday.

Decker told the Tribune-Review he talked with the governor after the board voted Dec. 20 to award Detroit-based Majestic Star the Pittsburgh slots license. The gambling board rejected a proposal by the Penguins' partner, St. Louis-based Isle of Capri Casinos, which had promised to pay $290 million for an arena if it became the licensee.

"Rendell guaranteed us they will not leave," Decker said. "He said, 'It might take a little more money. We're going to do whatever is necessary -- reasonably necessary -- to keep them in Pennsylvania.' "

Rendell's spokeswoman Kate Philips discounted Decker's remarks.

"The governor doesn't guarantee anything," she said. "It's just not his style."

Under an alternate financing plan headed by Rendell, Majestic Star has agreed to pay $7.5 million a year for 30 years toward an Uptown arena. The state would pay $7 million a year from a development fund backed by gambling money.

The Penguins would have paid $8.5 million up front and $2.9 million a year, while forgoing $1.16 million a year in naming rights. But Rendell has said the team's contribution was "significantly" reduced.

The arena would be built on property owned by the sports authority near Mellon Arena. The team's lease there ends in June.

Time has nearly run out on the Penguins' imposed 30-day deadline to complete an arena deal. They were expected to tell Kansas City officials by Feb. 4 whether they would relocate to play in the new Sprint Center starting next season.

The Penguins have not sought the National Hockey League's approval to relocate. The league repeatedly has stated its desire for the team to stay in Pittsburgh.

With the team at home through Saturday and Canadian news media in Pittsburgh for tonight's game against Montreal, officials might want to take advantage of the publicity and end the uncertainty, Fontana said.

"There is an opportunity to wrap this up nicely," Fontana said. "I could certainly see everybody wanting to get this settled while the parties are around."

Rendell was scheduled to be in Harrisburg today, Philips said.




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