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PNC Park's payoff still fuels debate

| Thursday, April 7, 2011

A decade after the opening of PNC Park, debate continues over whether the North Shore was a wise place to spend nearly $1 billion in public money.

Supporters cite the hundreds of millions in private dollars that built hotels, office buildings and restaurants. Opponents say that the region gained nothing and that a reshuffling moved companies across the Allegheny River.

"It's still a work in progress, but I'm certainly happy with what's taken place," said Bob Cranmer, the former Allegheny County commissioner who negotiated with the Steelers to handle the Heinz Field end of the North Shore redevelopment project.

Paying off debt on both stadiums and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center — all part of the Regional Destination Financing Plan — costs taxpayers $13.4 million a year, paid with part of the extra 1 percent sales tax that Allegheny County levies. The plan approved in 1998 ended up costing more than $1 billion, including more than $100 million from the Steelers and the Pirates.

"It was all supposed to generate economic growth for the city and the county," said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon. "Since they were completed ... the city has had no net private-sector job growth."

Costs include $270 million for PNC Park, $261 million for Heinz Field, $64 million for infrastructure changes, a $35 million riverfront park and nearly $28 million on a parking garage. An amphitheater is getting $2.5 million in state aid, and another parking garage, built in 2006 for $28 million, doesn't make enough money to pay off its debt.

"The parking garage isn't making money there, and that's an indicator of activity. All of this stuff is probably going to be lower than expectations," said Robert Strauss, an economics and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Hundreds of millions in private dollars have been pumped into North Shore real estate since 2001. In addition to the $450 million Rivers Casino, Del Monte and Equitable Resources built headquarters costing $36 million and $27 million, respectively; three hotels worth $77 million combined were built; and eight restaurants have opened.

In addition to about $10 million a year in property taxes from the development, events such as the 2006 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in PNC Park and the National Football League playoffs in Heinz Field generate tens of millions of dollars in sales, amusement and parking taxes.

More development will come, and without more public money, said Merrill Stabile, president of Alco Parking, which owns and manages lots and garages around the stadiums.

"There's no need for one more public dollar to be spent over there, whether it's in the form of (tax breaks), a state grant or land being sold for less than it's worth. The pump has been primed," Stabile said.

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