My political litmus test: Subsidize a North Shore amphitheater?

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Patrick Dowd, the Pittsburgh councilman who is taking on Mayor Luke "Steelerstahl" Ravenstahl in the May Democratic primary, is not your typical politician.

I called him the other day with an issue that seemed teed up for him, but he didn't swing away. If he happens to win and continues to give such measured responses, it's going to be awfully hard for a columnist to earn a living.

Here was the question, and the long set-up:

The Steelers and Continental Real Estate Cos. have plans for a $12 million amphitheater/nightclub complex on the North Shore, with the catch being a $4 million grant sought from the state.

I'd buttonholed Gov. Ed Rendell at a Heinz Field event earlier in the week to ask why the state might borrow money for this project when this would be the third amphitheater within about a half-mile radius of the Point State Park fountain. The slots parlor set to open just a few hundred yards down the Ohio River is required to have a small riverfront amphitheater, and the minimalists at Station Square are bringing back the tent amphitheater they abandoned three years ago, a bargain operation at roughly $50,000.

So, given that almost every American is cutting back on frills and the state is scrambling to balance a budget, is this really the time to make the confluence of the three rivers the amphitheater nexus of our nation?

Gov. Rendell said he'd sit down with Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Mayor Ravenstahl to determine their capital spending priorities and he'd ask "some of the same questions you just asked me."

City Councilman Bill Peduto, a longtime Ravenstahl rival, said, "When you don't have enough money to pay the bills, it's not the best time to put stuff on the credit card."

County Councilman Matt Drozd, a Republican, said the $4 million would be much better spent on bridges and roads.

But Mr. Dowd said the goal of improving the public spaces on the North Shore is a good one, and while he'd prefer to spend capital money on "critical infrastructure needs -- water, sewer, bridges and public transportation," he didn't simply kick this project to the curb. He'd want to see the developers' feasibility study first. He has his doubts that their assumptions still hold.

I have more than doubts. I'd say those assumptions are history, given the wild frugality sweeping the land, with recent reports of a family in Monroeville unplugging all the appliances. That third amphitheater could well be a $4 million bet of your money on an economy that no longer exists.

But Mr. Dowd was careful to say that the Rooneys, owners of the Steelers, were looking to breathe life into an area that had been nothing but a sea of asphalt for decades and "to the extent we can laud that, I want to laud that."

It was a different answer than the one I expected, a simple "You can like the Steelers and love the Rooneys and still know that spending $4 million in state money on a third city amphitheater is wacko."

I was unable to reach Mr. Onorato or Mr. Steelerstahl-Ravenstahl, who was in Washington, D.C., with about 80 mayors to take in a 10-minute speech from President Barack Obama and as much of the $787 billion stimulus package as they could. Pittsburgh's mayor told other reporters Friday he expects the city to get millions of additional dollars from various new funding streams.

The state money in question on the North Shore is more or less "walking around money" for the governor, and he can spend it as he wishes after conferring with the city and county executives, leaving the county and city councils out entirely.

Gov. Rendell doesn't think the state is broke, by the way. He said the capital budget is separate from the operating budget and Pennsylvania has "one of the best debt ratings in the country." (Standard & Poor's ratings suggest that our state's actually in the middle of the pack. It's one of 22 states at the AA level; 23 are better and five are worse.)

Though Pennsylvania is in far better fiscal shape than California or Louisiana, it is time to rethink an economic strategy that has been heavy on retail and entertainment. We have more than enough to divert us. We need to fix what's crumbling. The mayor's race is one of the many places where we ought to have that conversation.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at or 412-263-1947.


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