NHL lockout is bad news for businesses near Consol

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Last year, Terrie Rihn was able to buy a car with the overtime and tips she earned working during Penguins games at Pizza Milano on Fifth Avenue near Consol Energy Center.

These days, she's preparing to be more frugal with her money.

Even as the sun broke through the clouds outside the pizza parlor Thursday, a sense of gloom settled along Fifth Avenue in Uptown as restaurants and other businesses saw revenues skating off faster than Sidney Crosby on a breakaway because of the National Hockey League lockout.

Many already have lost or will lose business related to the cancellation of two Penguins exhibition games last week at Consol and another that had been scheduled for today. It got worse Thursday when the NHL announced that it was canceling the first 82 games of the regular season, including three Penguins home games starting with the opener Oct. 12.

"We'll be in trouble. It will kill us," said Dave Sypherd, owner of the Souper Bowl restaurant on Fifth, when asked about the impact on his business of the nearly month-old lockout.

Mr. Sypherd said Penguins games account for about 70 percent of his business. He said he was still recovering from the last NHL work stoppage, which wiped out the entire 2004-2005 season.

"I'm still paying for it now," he said.

He is hoping that some big-name concerts coming up over the next month will help to ease the pain. But beyond that, it could be tough going.

On hockey nights in Pittsburgh, the Souper Bowl has 15 employees on duty to handle the crowds and stays open until 2 a.m. On non-event days, the restaurant has eight employees on hand and stays open until 8 or 9 p.m.

As games are shelved because of the lockout, those extra employees won't be called in to work. The same applies at Cafe Fifth, about a block from the arena.

Owner Peter Oliver said he typically adds 12 to 15 employees for game days, jobs that will be lost during the lockout. He noted that hockey games and major concerts generate his biggest crowds.

"It's very difficult without hockey to make it at this end of town. There are not a lot of offices or businesses," he said, adding the situation got worse when UPMC moved about 1,500 employees from Chatham Center to U.S. Steel Tower on Grant Street.

He described the impact of the hockey work stoppage as "very negative."

"You're working hand to mouth. I hate to do that. Any businessman does. But you got to watch every single penny. You got to cut. You got to do stuff yourself. You got to delay maintenance. You know, all things that make it even more difficult to get up and go to work in the morning," he said.

"I mean, there are definitely other victims to this besides the players and the owners."

The T.G.I. Friday's restaurant at Consol Energy Center has slowed down its hiring as a result of the lockout. As with other nearby restaurants, hockey games are a big meal ticket for T.G.I. Friday's, manager Brian Dunkle said.

"It's obviously going to have an impact. Any events at Consol, those are our big nights," he said.

The restaurant opened last year, hoping to capitalize on the crowds that hockey games and concerts generate. Without such draws, "It's not ideal," Mr. Dunkle said, adding that events are "going to make or break us in the long term."

Beyond the restaurants, the work stoppage will play havoc with the paychecks of about 600 Aramark employees at Consol who work the concession booths or who hawk beer, popcorn and other foods and beverages in the stands.

"Hockey is our bread and butter. We're suffering a huge loss of income with a loss of games," said Mackenize Smith, lead organizer for Unite Here Local 57, which represents Aramark workers. "We think the lockout is hurting hockey and hurting Pittsburghers."

The Penguins said the lockout would have no impact on their full-time employees or those at Consol Energy Center at this time.

Overall, VisitPittsburgh, the city's tourism group, estimates that the lockout will cost the city $1.2 million a game in direct spending. That includes money spent on tickets, parking, souvenirs, food and beverages, CEO and president Craig Davis said. That means the city will lose out on $3.6 million in spending with just the regular season games canceled Thursday.

Mr. Davis said hockey games generate a lot of revenue for Downtown restaurants. VisitPittsburgh also estimates that about 5 percent of the fans who go to games are from out of town and stay at a hotel overnight.

Those out-of-town guests are particularly welcome during January and February, when hotels traditionally are scrambling to fill rooms. The revenues they receive from those fans during those months "are very difficult to replace," Mr. Davis said.

The city also will see tax monies melting away with each game lost to the lockout. Each home game produces on average $63,000 in amusement tax revenue and $10,000 in parking tax revenue. Concession sales generate another $27,000 in state sales tax revenue.

With so much at stake, the league and its players are on thin ice with city council president Darlene Harris.

She wrote to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr Thursday to urge them to "act without delay to negotiate" an agreement. She penned the missive before the NHL canceled the regular season games.

"The cancellation of the preseason will negatively affect workers, businesses, and families in our city, and a failure to resolve this dispute in time for the regular season would impose an even greater hardship," she wrote. "Dozens of businesses and hundreds of workers in Pittsburgh depend on the hockey season for their livelihood."

Nobody knows that better than Ms. Rihn, who has come to rely on the hockey season to help boost her income. She said Pizza Milano added a second floor bar and dining room after the Penguins moved from the Civic Arena to Consol Energy Center in 2010. That floor hasn't been opened this year because of the lockout.

"It's made a big impact on me," she said of the work stoppage. "I can't save a penny now.

"This year, I'm not buying anything," Ms. Rihn said as customers filed in the restaurant. "I was hoping to move this year. I don't see that happening now."

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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