Rendell lets news slip on arena groundbreaking

Governor announces $95M for projects; 'center ice' ceremony to take place Aug. 14


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During an appearance in Pittsburgh yesterday, Gov. Ed Rendell proved to be a one-man news operation.

He announced $95 million in funding for local bridge repairs and economic development projects, said the Penguins will break ground on the $290 million arena next week and raised concerns about the impact that delays in casino projects in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are having on property tax relief.

A short time after the governor let the news slip, the Penguins formally announced the groundbreaking would take place Aug. 14 at 11 a.m. at what will eventually be "center ice" of the new arena, which borders Fifth and Centre avenues and Washington Place in Uptown.

Mr. Rendell and Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, as well as Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and other public and Penguins officials, are expected to be on hand for the ceremony.

Construction is expected to shift into high gear later this summer or early this fall. The Penguins are hoping to complete the project in time for the start of the 2010-11 hockey season.

Toward that end, the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority board awarded nearly $52.6 million in construction contracts last month.

Part of the funding for the arena is expected to come from the owner of the North Shore casino, where construction was halted June 30 after Don Barden was unable to secure permanent financing for the project and couldn't make a $10 million payment to contractors for work done in April.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is now considering a proposal by a group led by Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm to take over the troubled project and invest $170 million in equity in it.

The gaming board has yet to schedule a hearing on the proposed bailout, which would leave Mr. Barden with a 20 percent share in the casino.

Mr. Rendell said he is growing more concerned about delays in getting slots parlors in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia up and running.

He said that if those three casinos, plus one in Bethlehem, were operating, property tax relief to Pennsylvania residents could be as high as $450 to $500 a year, and could run as high as $1,000 a year for seniors.

But as things now stand, the returns are more modest, with Mr. Rendell estimating the first installments will be $190 to $200.

"If we could get everyone on line as quickly as possible, the property tax cuts to Pennsylvanians would start to be substantial, something they can really appreciate," he said.

While Mr. Rendell said that he thought Mr. Bluhm and Mr. Barden would make good partners, he refused to weigh in on whether the gaming board should approve the ownership change, or rebid the license, as state Sens. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, and Jane Orie, R-McCandless, have demanded.

"I really do stay assiduously away from the dealings and the procedures of the gaming commission. It's my anti-indictment strategy," the governor joked.

Mr. Rendell said, however, he expects the gaming board to schedule a hearing on the proposal "soon," perhaps within the next week or so.

Mr. Rendell appeared at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown, to formally announce $93 million in state funding to repair 30 local bridges over the next 12 to 18 months. All of the spans are considered "structurally deficient," but are "not unsafe," the governor said.

The money for the repairs was part of a $350 million bond issue authorized by the Legislature to rehabilitate 411 bridges in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Rendell also announced the awarding of $1.47 million in grants and tax credits to Aetna Inc. to expand its customer operations and pharmacy call center in Green Tree, a project that will add 360 jobs.

PPG Architectural Finishes, a PPG Industries subsidiary, received $141,000 in grants and tax credits to relocate customer services operations from Florida and Kentucky to the Pittsburgh area, creating 33 new jobs. Another company, Haemonetics, received $125,000 to expand its Leetsdale manufacturing operations, adding 25 jobs.


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


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