Steelers, SEA plan meeting to settle funding dispute for 3,000 new Heinz Field seats

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After battling it out in court for months, the Steelers and the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority will try a different game plan in a bid to resolve a dispute over who will pay how much to add 3,000 seats to Heinz Field.

Mark Hart, the Steelers' director of strategic planning and development, said the two sides will "engage in discussions about a possible resolution to our dispute" over the next few weeks.

The announcement came after representatives for the SEA and the Steelers, including team president Art Rooney II, met together and separately with Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James following a short hearing Thursday.

Mr. Hart said the Steelers were the ones to suggest that the parties meet to try to settle the case.

"Quite honestly, if we can reach something that's agreeable to all parties in the next couple of weeks we might have a shot at getting something done [in terms of adding seats] for 2014," he said.

The Steelers are seeking to add the 3,000 seats in the south end zone. They filed a lawsuit against the SEA last fall after a deal to fund the $30 million expansion through surcharges on tickets and game day parking around Heinz Field collapsed.

In the lawsuit, the team maintains that the SEA is responsible for funding two-thirds of the cost under a section of the Heinz Field lease that involves designated expansions of no more than 10,000 seats.

But the SEA, which owns Heinz Field, has countered that the Steelers first must show that similar modifications have been made to at least half of all other NFL stadiums with at least 25 percent of the cost covered by federal, state or local governments to be considered a capital improvement that qualifies for funding under the lease.

They also must show the addition is "reasonably necessary" to maintain their relative economic position in the NFL regarding stadium revenues and expenses and to prevent Heinz Field from becoming "materially outdated" compared to other pro venues.

In a preliminary ruling in June, Judge James sided with the SEA, saying the Steelers failed to show that the proposed expansion met the requirements to qualify as a capital improvement.

After Thursday's meeting with the judge, Mr. Hart would not say whether the team would back off its demand that the SEA fund two-thirds of the expansion.

"I don't think we're at a stage where each of the parties can say what they're willing to do at this point," he said. "I think each party wants to have some good discussions."

Likewise, Walter DeForest, the SEA's attorney, wouldn't expound on whether the authority would change its position, given that it already has received a preliminary ruling in its favor in June.

"I really don't feel it's appropriate at this juncture to get into a discussion of those points," he said. "The parties are hopefully going to sit down together and talk."

Mr. Rooney left the courtroom without commenting.

If there is no settlement, a trial has been set in the case for Dec. 4.

In court filings, the Steelers have said a designated expansion, as they interpret it, would actually save the SEA money. The team said that under the lease if it can prove the addition is a capital improvement the authority would have to fund the full cost, not two-thirds of it.

The parties were in court Thursday because the Steelers wanted Judge James to schedule a hearing to listen to the testimony of former SEA executive director Stephen Leeper, who, in an affidavit, appeared to side with the team's interpretation of the Heinz Field lease.

Mr. Leeper said two projects were identified as "designated expansions" and the lease was drafted to provide that they could be started without the Steelers having to meet the requirements related to a capital improvement.

The SEA opposed the attempt to bring in Mr. Leeper, who helped negotiate the Heinz Field lease.

"If you allow this to happen, we have one former public official who says one thing. Are we going to go through all the decision-makers who had to make decisions regarding that lease?" Mr. DeForest asked.

Judge James, who did not rule on the team's request, questioned why the Steelers would be asking Mr. Leeper to clarify the lease when they argued earlier this year in a motion for a partial judgment that the agreement's language was clearly in their favor. He said their latest position appears to be "somewhat inconsistent" with their prior one.

The Steelers wanted to bring in Mr. Leeper to try to get a ruling in advance of the trial so they could order the materials needed to have the seats in place for the 2014 season.

Doing so would save $3 million in the cost of the project and provide an additional year of amusement tax and ticket surcharge revenue to the city and SEA, respectively, the team said.

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Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262. First Published September 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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