Steelers to sue stadium authority in dispute over 3,000 new seats


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A plan to add 3,000 more seats to Heinz Field has been thrown for a loss because of a dispute over who is responsible for paying what share of the construction.

The Steelers have filed notice they intend to sue the city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, claiming that the agency is not living up to its obligations under the Heinz Field lease to foot much of the bill for the expansion.

At issue is a clause in the team's lease that requires the SEA to pay two-thirds of the cost of a "designated expansion" involving no more than 10,000 seats in the south end zone, the site of the proposed additions.

Mark Hart, the Steelers' director of strategic planning and development, said Wednesday the SEA is refusing to pay the two-thirds share in its latest funding proposal and disputes whether it is even mandated to do so under the lease.

"I think the court can help us interpret terms of the lease that we think are very clear. We're confident of that. Hopefully, with the court's assistance, we don't have any ambiguity about who's supposed to do what things," he said.

In a statement, Steelers president Art Rooney II said the team was "left with no alternative other than to go to court to enforce the terms of our lease."

"We are extremely disappointed that the SEA has not given timely assurance of its intention to honor our lease for our Heinz Field expansion. This state-of-the-art expansion assures that Heinz Field would remain the first-class facility our fans expect and deserve. The SEA is our landlord and it is not holding up its end of the lease," he said.

Mr. Rooney said the Steelers have already advanced more than $6 million in funding for Heinz Field improvements as well as design and planning costs related to the proposed expansion. He added they have spent double that amount in ongoing repair and maintenance costs since Heinz Field opened in 2001.

Team officials had hoped to have a deal in place on the expansion by the end of October so that they could have the new seats ready for the 2013 season. But without a final agreement, the Steelers last week canceled an order for the steel needed for the construction.

Mr. Hart said there is now no way the team can have the seats ready for the start of the 2013 season.

"The start of the season is out of the question. The analysis will hinge upon whether we can spread the project to preserve some of the 2013 season, maintain some construction season and perhaps get it done in 2014. But the longer we go without a resolution, the more these things become impossibilities," he said.

The expansion is in limbo less than two months after the team and local political leaders had negotiated the framework of a deal to get the construction started.

It involved a $1 increase in an existing surcharge on Steelers tickets and a new parking surcharge of $2 to $3 at lots around Heinz Field during home games. Money raised from the surcharges would support a bond issue, estimated at $20 million, to be floated by the SEA. Under the plan, the Allegheny Regional Asset District would guarantee the bonds, although that aspect of the proposal now appears to be in question.

Under the plan, the Steelers would be responsible for funding $18 million to $19 million of the construction.

The proposal came under fire from Merrill Stabile, the president of Alco Parking Corp., who objected to the parking surcharge. His company manages most of the lots surrounding Heinz Field.

In response to the Steelers' intent to sue, SEA executive director Mary Conturo said that the agency and its attorneys "were comfortable in our legal position."

"The authority has been in discussions with the Steelers since April about appropriate ways to fund this project. We've been working with the Steelers and legal and financial advisers to find a solution which is consistent with our legal obligations and with the reality of the SEA's capacity to incur debt and to generate income," she said.

Ms. Conturo added that she remained hopeful that the parties would continue to talk and ultimately would be able to reach an agreement.

Yarone Zober, chief of staff for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who appoints part of the SEA board, also expressed hope that the dispute could be resolved.

"Until recently, the SEA has always been able to work cooperatively with the Steelers. In doing so, we've been able to create jobs, expand our tax base and bring people back to the North Shore. We hope to get back to that working relationship soon," he said.

In addition to adding the 3,000 seats in the expansion, the Steelers plan to raise the plaza at the south end of the stadium, build a club level, and revise the entry gates. The team also intends to add a new scoreboard at the north end so fans in the new seats can see replays and other videos during games.

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. First Published November 1, 2012 4:00 AM


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