Penguins arena work may start in July

City-county authority has bought all the land needed to begin construction

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Construction of a new arena in the lower Hill District could start in July now that the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority has secured all of the property it needs for the venture.

The SEA board approved two final purchases yesterday that should enable the authority to begin demolishing buildings in January in advance of a proposed July 1 construction date.

It authorized settlements totaling $3.6 million with the Laborers District Council of Western Pennsylvania and an affiliate for the purchase of the union's properties on Fifth Avenue and Congress Street that serve as its headquarters. The properties have an assessed value of $721,100, according to the county real estate web site. The purchase prices include $450,000 in relocation costs.

The board also ratified $550,000 in payments for two properties owned by Mark Bertenthal for his business, Burton Signs and Specialties, on Fifth. The properties are assessed at $157,800. Included in the purchase price are $82,000 in relocation costs.

With yesterday's moves, the authority now has control over 10 properties bordering Fifth and Centre avenues and Colwell Street that will be part of the site for the arena, considered the key to keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh. Through a $26.5 million advance from the state, the SEA paid $15 million for the properties, including relocation costs.

The authority board also approved $154,305 in contracts for environmental and design-related work to prepare for demolition and site clearing activities to start in January.

County Chief Executive Dan Onorato said the moves send a "strong signal" that he and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl are committed to building a new arena and keeping the Penguins in town.

"It's probably the best evidence that we're serious about doing this," he said.

Ms. Conturo said the SEA wants to have the site ready for construction by July 1, the timetable being discussed with the Penguins. It is shooting to have the new arena open by fall 2009, in time for the start of hockey season.

The site, between Centre and Fifth, has long been the preferred choice of the Penguins. The arena would be built there under either of the two funding proposals, one involving Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. and another crafted by Gov. Ed Rendell.

"Any progress on a new arena is good news for Penguins fans," team spokesman Tom McMillan said.

He added the actions continue the "fulfillment of the promise" made by the SEA in November 2005 to provide a clean site for a new arena if someone stepped forward to fund the construction.

The authority and the team still must work out an arrangement to demolish former St. Francis Central Hospital on Centre Avenue. That facility, now owned by the Penguins, occupies a big chunk of the proposed arena site.

Mr. Onorato, Mr. Ravenstahl and the SEA are moving quickly to get the arena work started in an effort to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh under new owner Jim Balsillie, a Canadian businessman.

The Penguins' lease at Mellon Arena expires at the end of June, at which point they would be free to move elsewhere if Isle of Capri does not win the license for the Pittsburgh slot machine casino.

Isle of Capri, in partnership with the Penguins, has pledged $290 million toward construction of a new arena. If it gets the license, the team would be required to stay in Pittsburgh.

Gov. Ed Rendell has crafted an alternative arena funding proposal, known as Plan B, but the Penguins are not bound by it. Before construction could start under Plan B, the team most likely would have to commit to a long-term lease.

Plan B is built on contributions of $7.5 million a year for 30 years from PITG Gaming LLC or Forest City Enterprises, if either of those two casino bidders gets the slots license; $7 million a year from a slots-backed state economic development fund; and $4 million a year from the team, in addition to an upfront payment of $8.5 million.

While Mr. Balsillie, who has said he would work to try to keep the team here, has enthusiastically endorsed the Isle of Capri proposal, he has had little to say about Plan B.

Yesterday, as the SEA board met, Mr. Onorato and Mr. Ravenstahl talked by phone with National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman to reaffirm their desire to retain the Penguins and to invite him to Pittsburgh to visit the site for the new arena. It was Mr. Ravenstahl's first opportunity to talk to Mr. Bettman since becoming mayor in September.

"He was very enthusiastic about the new ownership, and obviously was not speaking on the new owner's behalf, but was enthusiastic about keeping the team in Pittsburgh," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

Mr. Bettman has voiced his support for the Isle of Capri plan in the past. He has not endorsed Plan B and did not commit to its terms in yesterday's call "other than saying that we need to sit down and discuss what Plan B means" if Isle of Capri does not get the license, Mr. Ravenstahl said.

"He indicated that he is willing to discuss it," he said.

Mr. Onorato described the call as more of a "casual conversation to keep communications open" and to get ready for Mr. Bettman's visit, expected in a couple of weeks.

"I think it's positive that we keep talking," he said. "Gary Bettman and the NHL are going to be a key part of whatever we do. The more we talk, the better."


Rich Lord contributed to this report. Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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