A new nest for the Penguins

Ground broken for $290 million arena that should be ready for 2010 NHL season

The bond between the city and its hockey team became permanent -- finally -- at the ceremonial breaking of ground for a new arena. How else to explain hundreds of fans in hockey jerseys chanting "Let's Go Pens!" in the August heat as dignitaries wielded shiny shovels with handles fashioned from Sidney Crosby hockey sticks.

"We're here in Pittsburgh forever," Ken Sawyer, chief executive officer of the Penguins, said yesterday.

Technically, a lease binds the Penguins to the city for 30 years after the new arena opens for the 2010 season. But with a $290 million multi-use building that also will be home to concerts and circuses and various stage shows, and aimed at reuniting the Lower Hill District neighborhood with Downtown, the franchise and the city have made a lasting commitment.

"I don't see this team ever leaving. This is a great hockey market," Mr. Sawyer said.

The building will be bounded by Fifth Avenue, Centre Avenue and Washington Place.

While the ceremonial shovels scooped up a mound of fresh dirt placed at what one day will be center ice of a six-story structure covering eight acres, they also buried a decade of frustrations and acrimony that built up in the quest to replace Mellon Arena, the oldest venue in the National Hockey League.

The Penguins had explored options in such places as Kansas City and Las Vegas before a financing package for a new arena was cobbled together 18 months ago.

With no local tax money available, the key money comes from an economic development fund created as part of the state gaming laws, although it was lost on no one that work on a North Shore slots parlor has been halted while construction of the new arena is just ramping up.

On this day of celebration, owner Mario Lemieux said the purpose of visiting those other cities was "to have a nice dinner and come back." Despite the frustrations of a drawn-out process, the team owner and Hall of Fame player said the goal all along was to keep the Penguins here.

"It's been a long time coming. It's something that's exciting for all of us," Mr. Lemieux said following the ceremonies.

The new arena will be owned by the Sports & Exhibition Authority. The authority, which was responsible for property acquisition and site development, already has turned over the site to the Penguins. As the primary tenant, the team is responsible for design and construction. The building also will be used for such sporting events as college basketball tournaments, indoor soccer, tennis and a variety of concerts and stage events.

At 720,000 square feet, the new building could absorb Mellon Arena and have 300,000 square feet to spare. It will have 18,087 seats for hockey -- a nod to Sidney Crosby's No. 87 -- or 1,147 more seats than the old arena. It also will offer more luxury suites -- 62 to Mellon's 52 -- and more club seats -- 2,000 to Mellon's 1,696.

A structure designed and built during the Dwight Eisenhower administration is giving way to one with the bells and whistles of the age of the microchip, including a Jumbotron scoreboard in high definition and top-of-the-industry sound system. The new arena, which will be accessible on every level to people with disabilities, includes a full-service restaurant, public bars and food court on both the main concourse and an upper level concourse, five retail shops, one concession point of sale for every 158 spectators, 11 escalators, six truck docks and an enclosed bridge connected to a new parking garage.

Fans can follow progress via a Web cam and information page set up on the Penguins' Web site at penguins.nhl.com.

Work started months ago on the new arena, and heavy-equipment operators shut down their machines during yesterday's ceremonies. The event was held in full view of the old arena sitting across Centre Avenue. Although there was no ice to be found, it had some of the feel of a hockey game, what with Jeff Jimerson singing the national anthem and team mascot Iceburgh making his rounds.

Gov. Ed Rendell, who saluted the Penguins as "America's Team" because of their playoff popularity, noted the day would not have been possible without the revenue from expanded gaming.

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato called the new arena "another Renaissance" for the city and said, "It was a painful process, but the end result was worth it."

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl had the crowd chanting "Stanley Cup!" when he said Sidney Crosby and his teammates, within a short time, will be hoisting the most cherished trophy in sports on what is now a dirt lot.

Paul Steigerwald, the Penguins' play-by-play announcer on television, got a big reaction when he positioned the dignitaries and their shovels, starting with Mr. Lemieux at center and the Democratic governor as the left wing.

"There are no right wingers. We're all Democrats," Mr. Steigerwald said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Then he announced Mr. Onorato on the right, with Mr. Sawyer and Penguins consultant David Morehouse as defensemen, the mayor as the goalie and sports authority Chairman John Chalovich as the coach.

Among the fans in attendance were Skip Clayton, 54, of Coraopolis, and his 16-year-old son, Dan, wearing a new hat shaped like a penguin.

"I can't wait to sit on one of those seats in the new arena," said Mr. Clayton.

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com . First Published August 15, 2008 4:00 AM


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