Arena benefits agreement has detractors

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On the eve of a ratification vote, a state legislator and a group of Hill District ministers are criticizing a proposed community benefits agreement with the Penguins, the city and Allegheny County as a bad deal for the neighborhood.

In a statement yesterday, the Hill Faith and Justice Alliance urged residents to reject a tentative agreement reached by the One Hill Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, in part because it doesn't believe the team's financial investment in the deal is adequate.

State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, criticized the agreement in a letter to One Hill leaders, raising many of the same objections as the Faith and Justice Alliance, with which he is aligned.

"It is my opinion that this document can and must be strengthened. It provides an opportunity to continue to dialogue with the Penguins, city and county, but it does not offer the type of reinvestment that is meaningful and significant for the community," he wrote.

The criticism comes as members of the One Hill coalition, made up of 100 groups, gather today to vote on whether to ratify the agreement, which came after months of negotiations.

Among the provisions, it gives residents first crack at arena-related jobs, corporate help for neighborhood improvements and $2 million toward a long-sought grocery store, half of which would come from the Penguins.

Mr. Wheatley and the alliance criticized the Penguins for not contributing more than the $1 million grocery store commitment. While the team has pledged to work with Hill leaders to get corporate sponsors and funding for improvements under the state tax credit-backed Neighborhood Partnership Program, it is not one of the sponsors itself, they said.

In an interview, Mr. Wheatley said the Penguins' financial commitment should be at least $3 million, matching the pledge North Shore casino owner Don Barden has made to the neighborhood.

He and the alliance also complained about the agreement covering the 28-acre Mellon Arena site, which the Penguins have the rights to develop once their new building opens in 2010.

The alliance charged that the city and county "gave away" the 28 acres in negotiations to keep the team in Pittsburgh and that "this gift should come with some commitments beyond simply staying in the area."

Carl Redwood, chairman of the One Hill coalition, said that while the community benefits agreement includes the 28-acre site, he expects more discussion on the property once the Penguins finalize their development plans.

"We don't know what the 28 acres is yet. No one has seen it. I expect there will be discussion around future development plans for the 28 acres," he said.

Mr. Redwood said it will be up to the groups that are part of One Hill to decide whether the agreement is fair. He said the alliance is not part of One Hill and did not participate in the talks.

One Hill leaders have said the tentative agreement is based on the priorities expressed by residents and businesses in a process that began a year ago.

"Each group has the right to criticize. It takes work to do the negotiations. We need to continue to work to improve our community. This is one piece of what we need to do," Mr. Redwood said.

The Penguins declined comment, and the city and county had little response to the alliance's objections.

"We continue to work with the Hill District community to reach an agreement that benefits all of its residents," said city Chief of Staff Yarone Zober, who has been Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's point man on talks with Hill groups.

Officials intended the agreement negotiated with One Hill to be the sole document governing benefits stemming from the new arena and the 28-acre redevelopment site next door. The development rights to that site, and a $15 million credit toward the cost of the land, were granted to the Penguins at a time when the team was threatening to move to Kansas City.

Mr. Wheatley said that if the community benefits agreement is ratified today, he and the alliance "will continue to fight for things we think that document is lacking."


Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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