Gov. Ed Rendell is expected to meet with representatives of the Penguins this evening to try to close in on a deal to fund a new arena and keep the team in Pittsburgh under a long-term lease.
Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl likely will join Mr. Rendell at the session. It's uncertain whether Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle will be among those representing the team.
The meeting comes amid a growing sense of optimism among state and local officials that an agreement to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh is moving closer to completion.
No one is predicting, however, that a final accord will be announced as part of this evening's gathering.
"I think they're getting closer to a deal," said state Sen. Wayne Fontana, a board member of the city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority, which has been involved in the talks. "I'm confident that progress is being made."
Mr. Fontana is not expecting tonight's meeting to produce a final agreement.
"I suspect there's going to have to be some conversation with the [sports authority] even after they come to some conclusion," he said. "I don't expect it to conclude [today], but on the other hand I'm anticipating they will get closer to the end."
The Penguins have repeatedly declined comment on the talks.
The two sides are trying to work out a deal under Plan B, Mr. Rendell's funding formula for a new arena. It originally called for $14.5 million a year in contributions from slot machine gambling in Pennsylvania, plus $4 million a year from the Penguins, including $1.16 million annually in naming rights.
The Penguins annual contribution is expected to end up closer to $2.9 million, however, and a proposed $8.5 million upfront payment likely will be covered by the sale of the team-owned St. Francis Central Hospital to the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which needs it as part of the new arena site.
"What I sense is a positive tone" out of Mr. Onorato, Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Rendell, County Council President Rich Fitzgerald said. "They feel optimistic that it's got a good chance."
He said he has been told that no tax dollars will be part of any funding plan.
The Penguins want to decide by the end of the month whether to stay in Pittsburgh under a new arena deal or move to Kansas City, where the $276 million rent-free Sprint Center will be ready next fall.
The team's Mellon Arena lease expires at the end of June.
In Pittsburgh, a new arena won't be ready until 2009 at the earliest. As a result, the Penguins are hoping to secure an interim agreement that would give them a greater share of Mellon Arena revenues.
The team has available to it a proposed lease extension that would allow it to play rent free at Mellon Arena next year and control most building revenues. It would require an upfront payment of $5 million to SMG, which currently manages the facility.
Today's session will be the first since Jan. 4, when Mr. Lemieux emerged from a "very positive" meeting with the three elected leaders, optimistic about the prospects for keeping the team here.
Mark Belko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1262.