The two most nervous men in town these days have to be Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. They're nervous because their bright political futures, which could take them well beyond their current positions, are in jeopardy.
Onorato is said to be eyeing the 2010 governor's race, where he certainly would be a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. Ravenstahl, less than a year in office, doesn't yet have those ambitions. But he's a heavy favorite to be elected mayor in November, and, with his youth, likability quotient and the high name recognition he'll eventually have, it's not hard to see him in Congress some day or succeeding Onorato as governor.
But there's a major obstacle in the path of these ambitions. It's so large, in fact, it could make their current jobs their last ones in the public sector.
No one wants to be the man on whose watch a major sports franchise leaves town. That's one of the reasons the politicians went against the wishes of the voters and funded new stadiums for the Steelers and Pirates. But that's where Onorato and Ravenstahl are today. They are perilously close to being remembered as the top two elected officials in the region who let the Penguins get away.
If that happens, there is a small but highly vocal and deeply passionate Penguins fan base that would do everything in its power to have Onorato and Ravenstahl defeated the next time they dare run for office. Beyond that, people who believe sports are important to the region also will take a dim view of the Penguins leaving and feel new leadership is needed.
The Penguins, blessed with massive leverage because they are coveted by at least one other city, flexed their muscles Monday and pronounced the current talks for a new arena at an "impasse" and said they would "aggressively explore relocation."
Kansas City here we come.
Onorato and Ravenstahl, along with Gov. Ed Rendell, are on the other side of the table from the Penguins in these negotiations. This very position alone has made them unpopular with fans so dazed by the possible loss of the Penguins they can't think straight. It is incumbent on Onorato and Ravenstahl to get a deal done or be labeled as the politicians who lost the Penguins. Rendell is the major power broker in these talks, but he's in his final term as governor and said he has no ambitions to run for office again. Onorato and Ravenstahl are the ones with the most to lose.
The solution is not as simple as it appears. A deal needs to be done, but not in terms so favorable to the Penguins that the city and county will look like losers. Although Penguins fans have been extremely vocal in lending support to a new arena, they are enormously outnumbered by those who might care whether the team stays but in no circumstances want to see public money go to a private business, particularly one that has Ron Burkle, whose worth is estimated at $2.5 billion, in the ownership group.
The dilemma for Onorato and Ravenstahl is this: If the Penguins leave, they'll be smashed, trashed and bashed by supporters of the team. If the Penguins stay with too good a deal -- one, say, that included RAD tax money -- the silent majority could erupt with equal venom at the polls.
Make no mistake, despite all the hollering by Penguins fans and the team's too-ardent supporters in the media, most people prefer to see public money going back into their pockets in the form of property-tax relief. They'll accept a reasonable deal, but not one too loaded in favor of the team.
As the deal is currently constructed, about $15 million annually is slated to go into funding for an arena from slots revenue. There are a lot of people who would prefer to see that money going toward tax relief or improved public services, such as more police. Fifteen million dollars buys a lot of policemen.
Onorato and Ravenstahl have to get back to the table and get a deal done that will keep the Penguins and still save them face with the majority of the voters. All the leverage is not with the Penguins. Kansas City is not the perfect solution. It might be great for two or three years, but the NHL has failed there once -- as have the NBA and MLB -- and a long-term deal would be filled with the kind of future doubts that don't exist in Pittsburgh.
But the two local leaders cannot be dismissive about the Penguins' wishes. If the Penguins leave, the approximately $4 million they are scheduled to put toward arena funding goes with them. Without that $4 million, an arena, at least the kind that would attract an NHL or NBA team, does not get built.
Onorato and Ravenstahl are on the spot. They need to get this deal done soon, done right and done so Penguins fans and average citizens are pleased with the outcome.
Their futures are at stake.