Risks over arena great for public officials and franchise

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The Penguins' latest declaration that they are seeking a home beyond Pittsburgh may have been an authentic expression of eight years of frustrating negotiations, but it was also a calculated effort to boost pressure on state and local officials to resolve, once and for all, their quest for a new arena.

   
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The talks, which may resume tomorrow, pose significant, though varying, degrees of political risk for the three officeholders involved, just as they carry substantial business and public relations risks for the franchise.

For Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, the flight of the flightless birds would offer a ready-made issue to his mayoral challenger, Councilman William Peduto.

Mr. Peduto, who has been a passionate hockey fan since growing up in Scott down the block from former Penguins player Lowell MacDonald, seized on the latest development yesterday, blaming Mr. Ravenstahl for taking a back seat to Gov. Ed Rendell and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato throughout the talks.

He contrasted what he characterized as a subsidiary role by the mayor with the leading one played by former Mayor Tom Murphy in the negotiations that produced PNC Park and Heinz Field.

Mr. Ravenstahl, who said he had reached out to the Penguins in response to their letter declaring an impasse in the arena talks, rejected his rival's critique, noting the central financial role of the state in any prospective deal.

"Without the governor at the table, there's absolutely no way we could be in discussions to keep the team here," he said.

Mr. Onorato has no similar short-term jeopardy. His re-election is all but assured with no Republican opponent and only a long-shot challenge from community organizer Richard Swartz for the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Onorato is widely seen as having ambitions beyond the courthouse, however. The departure of the popular sports franchise could complicate those plans. Mr. Onorato has led a relatively charmed public life since taking over as the county's second chief executive.

By introducing a base-year system for property tax assessments, he finessed an issue that had dogged county officials for decades. He recently welcomed the news that US Airways had decided to locate its expended operations center in the county. But the Penguins issue could turn into a hurdle on a potential road to higher office.

From a purely political perspective, the arena issue was a bigger potential problem for Mr. Rendell before his landslide re-election last year.

His opponent, Lynn Swann, joined a long list of politicians of both parties in embracing the casino bid of Isle of Capri, then the Penguins' partner, which pledged to build a new arena in return for the awarding of a slot machine license.

Mr. Rendell took the lead in crafting the so-called Plan B, wherein all three of Pittsburgh's slots bidders were asked to help finance a new arena. He is barred from seeking a third term as governor, so the talks could do little to cloud his personal ambition.

Their resolution, could, at most, have a marginal, intangible impact on the clout he brings to battles over broader state issues. A popular governor is in a better position than an unpopular one in asking for tough votes on such issues as health care or the budget.

"I think the political stakes for the governor are certainly less than they are for the two local officials running for re-election, but having said that, the governor ... has worked hard on this project because it is important to Western Pennsylvania,'' said Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Mr. Rendell. "It's got less to do with politics than it does with the fact that he thinks it's important for Pittsburgh to have a hockey team."

Despite the impression that might be conveyed by the callers to sports talk radio, the political pressure on public officials concerning the Penguins does not come solely from one side.

Mr. Peduto invoked the former Mayor Mr. Murphy in his criticism of Mr. Ravenstahl. But among the political problems that assailed Mr. Murphy in the latter part of his administration was enduring criticism of his role in championing public financing for the North Shore sports facilities.

In the run-up to last year's elections, Western Pennsylvania voters were the targets of polling on almost every conceivable public issue. If those surveys had found big majorities favoring public financing of the arena, local and state politicians would be lining up behind such proposals, making the Penguins talks easier for all sides.

But the issue is a double-edged sword to politicians.

"Who lost the Penguins?" could become to Pittsburgh politics what "Who lost China?" was to the national political debate of the 1950s, a source of never-ending, unresolvable bickering.

At the same time, as the fate of Mr. Murphy and former county Commissioners Bob Cranmer and Mike Dawida suggests, there is political peril in being perceived as having given away the store to a sports franchise.

In a reflection of that reality, under the outline of Plan B, a pledge of $7.5 million in gaming proceeds from the eventual Pittsburgh casino winner, Majestic Star, along with other gaming-generated revenues and a substantial contribution from the team, are the heart of the financing deal still on the table. The political players have emphasized repeatedly that the proposal does not depend on tax dollars.

The prospect of the Penguins' exit raises the question of what would happen to the Majestic Star portion of that revenue stream. Even though Isle of Capri lost out on the slots license, it was a political and public relations achievement on its part and that of the casino operator's allies, the Penguins, that a public consensus developed early that arena financing was an appropriate goal for slots revenue.

Part of the argument was that this was private money rather than tax dollars. But if that revenue stream is not needed for a new arena, would it be available for some other public purpose? Officials close to the talks disagreed on whether it could be redirected or simply added to Majestic Star's prospective profits.

"That's highly speculative," said Bob Oltmanns, a Majestic Star spokesman.

While they don't have to worry about the next election, the Penguins aren't immune from risk in this situation. Mario Lemieux will always be a Pittsburgh sports legend. Whatever happens with the team, he won't be a contender for the pariah status Art Modell assumed in Cleveland with the exit of the Ravens, nee Browns. But the prospect of the Kansas City Penguins, or the Las Vegas Penguins, would inevitably complicate his relationship with an adopted home whose team he saved on the ice and in the front office.

From a business standpoint, the lease details offered by Kansas City seem favorable to the team. And with its current makeup, the odds are that a winning, young team could sell tickets in any sizable city, at least in the near term. The real danger for the team in a new city is whether it could cultivate the long-term fan base that allowed the team to attract crowds even in its down years. That relationship, built over decades, will be at risk for all sides as the brinkmanship over the arena continues.


Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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