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Lower Hill panel might find cues elsewhere in Pens' arena talks

Jeremy Boren
| Friday, April 27, 2007

As a coalition of Hill District leaders lobby today for a cut of money from a new hockey arena and job guarantees for minorities, they could follow the example of similar negotiations in other cities.

"We live, work and play here 24 hours a day," said Kimberly C. Ellis, 34, a Hill District activist. "Other people come here just to play, and then they leave.

"We have to put up with the increases in trash, traffic and crowds, and so we would like the entire city to support us, as other cities have."

The 12-member Hill District group includes clergy, community activists and residents. They want jobs, $10 million for a development fund and an unspecified annual contribution from the Penguins and the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority, which are completing a 30-year lease agreement for a $290 million arena in the Lower Hill.

Jobs for minorities and city residents were chief among requests from community and business groups in two other U.S. cities with new sports complexes.

Forcing elected officials to recognize a grassroots minority group that wants to protect its neighborhood takes courage and persistence, said the Rev. Gregory Chandler, president of The Amos Group, a faith-based public advocacy coalition of 40 Cincinnati-area churches.

Chandler and 300 supporters staged a March 29 rally that helped to persuade Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials to name two blacks to the Banks Working Group, a seven-member board that's planning a $600 million riverfront development between Paul Brown Stadium and the Great American Ballpark.

The board was all white, Chandler said.

"We want total involvement in the development, and now we have a seat at the table," Chandler said. "We were not going to settle for a wink and a nod and somebody saying, 'We'll take care of you.' "

In downtown Newark, the New Jersey Devils answered pleas from neighborhood groups asking for a share of the action from the $355 million Prudential Center arena, which is set to open in the fall, said Bo Kemp, Newark's business administrator.

The Devils pledged $250,000 a year to benefit work force development and training, and new minority-owned businesses in the city. The team promised another $250,000 a year to improve city recreation centers and parks.

"This way, the average citizen can see a direct connection between their life and the arena itself," Kemp said. He said the arena's manager, AEG, is required in an agreement with the city to have minorities make up 35 percent of its work force in concessions, ticket-taking and elsewhere.

In addition to creating jobs, Pittsburgh city planners say the still-unnamed arena is likely to be the catalyst for a revitalized Hill District.

Detroit businessman Don Barden, whose PITG Gaming is building a North Shore casino, has pledged an unspecified amount of seed money for a $350 million Hill District redevelopment project, which would include homes, offices and commercial space.

Of the three companies that vied for the city's sole slots license, only Barden's pledged support for redeveloping the Lower Hill. Isle of Capri, which hoped to build a casino in the Hill and fund a new arena, was supported by Pittsburgh First, a nonprofit community group led by the Rev. James Simms. Pittsburgh First has been dormant since the state Gaming Control Board awarded the slots license to Barden.

The Hill District group, which doesn't have a formal name, plans to show its wish list to the Penguins for the first time at today's meeting with team officials, the SEA, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato. The group's leaders -- Democratic state Rep. Jake Wheatley, Hill Community Development Corp. chairwoman Marimba Milliones and the Rev. Johnnie Monroe of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church -- plan to use their clout at the meeting.

Yet, they might not have enough leverage to secure promises.

"Their biggest problem is, they're a little late to the game," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd. He noted the Pens already have a tentative agreement with the city, county and state.

"This is a pure power politics effort," Ganis said. "There's very little about these kinds of local benefits agreements that is purely voluntary."

The Hill group could succeed if its members make a persuasive appeal to team co-owner Ron Burkle, a billionaire philanthropist, or if they can guarantee future political support to the team and related developments.

"If all they're doing is taking from the trough, rather than adding something to it as well, they're going to have a tough time," Ganis said.

Ravenstahl said he's willing to listen, but he isn't making promises.

"I'm not against putting money aside into some sort of development fund for investment in that community. I am against signing over a check to somebody to do with whatever they choose," Ravenstahl said Thursday. "I think everybody's goal is to build consensus on what makes sense for that community."

Penguins President David Morehouse said the team is "looking forward" to the meeting.

Another community organization, the Hill District Consensus Group, is preparing to ask the Pens for support. The group, started in 1991, hasn't decided what its 72 member organizations want, but its requests will focus on securing jobs for Hill residents, including service and hotel union employees who work in and around Mellon Arena, said founder Carl Redwood Jr.

"Since there's so much public money being used to support the development of the (Penguins) arena, they need to support the community," he said.

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