Gene Collier: Penguins will get what they want, but not at desired price

But, in light of Isle of Capri's slot-license loss, local politicians will determine the cost

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You didn't have to believe in omens to find it a bit odd that on the subway ride toward Mellon Arena yesterday, "I'm gettin' nuttin' for Christmas" seemed to be squawking in a continuous loop.

This was right at the top of zero hour, when the long-awaited, viciously anticipated casino licensing issue would finally be decided. Twenty minutes later, the Penguins had begun practice on the NHL's oldest living hockey pond, and at precisely 11:27 a.m., the franchise learned it was indeed getting nothing for Christmas.

(Look, it could be worse: You could be the Pirates or their fans -- they're getting Nuttings for Christmas.)

Oh yeah, mommy and daddy are mad, the NHL is mad, even the Rooneys and the NFL are mad, issuing two among the day-long flurry of official tight-lipped statements that included the always vaguely threatening "our options" pill.

Reached later in the day, Steelers president Art Rooney II explained the club's primary disappointment has to do with traffic, parking and infrastructure.

"Our intention is to try to remain involved in the process," Rooney said. "We've been disappointed because we think the decision gave little weight to local interests. We assume there will be an ongoing process in terms of the various approvals that are necessary, and we'll try to protect our interests and the interests of our fans, who need to get in and out of this place."

You'll notice he didn't say that with Isle of Capri not winning the casino license, the city is going straight to hell and the Steelers might just as well move to North Carolina with Bill and Kaye and Lindsay.

Predictably, the maddest bunch were and shall be, for a time, Penguins management and the club's loyal, vocal, emotional, and often enough paranoid fans, including those without media credentials.

When everyone calms down and the bile goes flat, I think you'll see an easily identifiable path now cleared from the huge speculative obstacle that was the licensing issue. By awarding Pittsburgh's sole casino license to the North Shore developer, the state's Gaming board did not put the Penguins on an ice flow and kick them down river.

The Penguins will get what they want, a new arena, at the site they want, adjacent to the old one, by the date they want, 2009. They just won't get it on the terms they want, which was to have Isle of Capri, one of the two losing bidders yesterday, pay for it.

"There's no doubt in my mind this will get done," said mayor Luke Ravenstahl. "If they are as committed as we are, the Penguins should never leave Pittsburgh."

Ravenstahl was standing next to county executive Dan Onorato in the lobby of the old Alcoa building on Sixth Avenue, where Onorato was trying to turn Plan B into Plan A, and Christmas shoppers along William Penn Place peered in from the sidewalk because two guys in dark suits and power ties in front of the TV lights is usually some kind of emergency.

Onorato said he was going straight upstairs to the Sports & Exhibition Authority offices to phone the Penguins as soon as the lights went off, which he did.

They didn't answer.

"Let me reach out to Mario," Onorato said. "I know he's frustrated, saying he's waited [for politicians to get things done] for seven years. But I've only been county executive for three years, and Mayor Ravenstahl's only been here for several months. The mayor and I are going to make it clear we intend to remove the uncertainty."

"The sooner the Penguins are willing to sit down," the mayor said, "the sooner the uncertainty will go away."

Of all the official poses struck yesterday, the Penguins' actually seemed the most measured. Their statement, in lieu of the presumed news conference, was a beacon of diplomacy compared to the hysterical reaction of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who less than a week ago was so certain Pittsburgh had to be the home of the Penguins that prospective owner Jim Balsillie took his Blackberry and went home.

"The decision by the Gaming Commission was terrible news for the Penguins, their fans, and the NHL," read that statement. "The future of this franchise in Pittsburgh is uncertain, and the Penguins now will have to explore all other options, including possible relocation. The NHL will support the Penguins in their endeavors."

Put the gun down, Gary.

Just as war is the failure of diplomacy, state-sponsored gambling is the failure of public policy. If you've got to have it, you'd better make sure that its proven negative impacts are counterbalanced across the broadest possible landscape economically and socially.

It's a tremendously complicated urban-planning question for which a good faith answer was put forth yesterday, and there is undoubtedly room for the Penguins within the solution.

Post-Gazette photo
Are the Penguins better off in the same area as Mellon Arena?
Click photo for larger image.


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