Fresh off a visit to Kansas City, Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle will meet with local and state leaders in Pittsburgh today to discuss a plan for funding a new arena, with the hockey team's future here hanging in the balance.
Even as a new arena in Kansas City could be the bait to lure the Penguins away, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato vowed that he, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Gov. Ed Rendell are prepared to offer a "very competitive deal" to keep the team from bolting.
Yesterday, on the eve of the meeting with Lemieux, Burkle and other team officials, Onorato said he was "cautiously optimistic" an agreement could be crafted.
"We're in the position to put together a very competitive deal for a new arena and a franchise to be in that arena, and I believe at the end of the day the NHL and the ownership of the Penguins will see that this is a competitive deal," he said.
Onorato and the others are banking on Plan B, the arena funding formula crafted by Rendell as a backup to the pledge by Isle of Capri to provide $290 million for an arena if it got the Pittsburgh casino license.
Until now, neither Lemieux nor other Penguins officials could meet with local leaders to discuss arena funding because of the team's agreement with Isle of Capri. But last month when Isle of Capri lost, that left Plan B as the only thing standing between the Penguins, whose Mellon Arena lease expires at the end of June, and a potential move.
Under the plan, the arena would be funded with contributions of $7.5 million a year for 30 years from Pittsburgh casino winner Don Barden; $7 million a year for 30 years from a slots-financed state economic development fund; and $4 million a year from the Penguins, including $1.1 million annually from naming rights, plus $8.5 million upfront.
In a letter to Rendell last week, Lemieux and Burkle said they were hoping a financing plan could be developed that "is significantly better than the original Plan B."
Asked whether elected leaders would sweeten their offer at today's meeting, Onorato said he wouldn't use that term but added that he and the others would begin "clarifying the details" of Plan B and a proposed long-term lease.
Onorato reiterated yesterday that terms of Plan B are negotiable. He has said in the past he was confident the city, county and state could get the Penguins the same deal as the Pirates got at PNC Park, where the team contributed 18 percent of the $260 million cost. Under Plan B, the Penguins would be contributing close to 21 percent of the $290 million cost.
Onorato said the Penguins have used the Pirates' deal as a benchmark in the past, although it's uncertain whether that is still the case given the interest by other cities in the franchise.
"[The offer] is very close to what the Pirates have," Onorato said. "There is no reason why we don't come to a meeting of the minds at the end of the day, whenever that day is, because of the gaming money that's on the table."
He said he is not expecting to close a deal at today's meeting. But, he added, he, the mayor and the governor will go in prepared to negotiate.
"If they come ready to do a deal, we'll do a deal," he said.
Lemieux and Burkle indicated in their letter they want an agreement "well in advance" of a March 31 deadline proposed by the governor.
Onorato's comments came against the backdrop of the Penguins owners' visit to Kansas City.
"We are meeting with officials in Kansas City as part of our effort to explore all of our options regarding a new arena. We have heard many great things about their new building, which is scheduled to open in time for the start of the 2007-08 NHL season," according to a statement released by the Penguins and attributed to the team's owners.
"We will meet with Governor Rendell, County Executive Onorato and Mayor Ravenstahl in Pittsburgh [today], and we will continue to explore other options as well. Our hope is to reach a new arena deal as soon as possible that will best ensure the economic health and long-term future of the Penguins franchise."
Officials in Kansas City and from the Sprint Center, a $276 million facility scheduled to open this fall, supplied no details about what was discussed yesterday or whether any specific lease terms have been proposed.
Anschutz Entertainment Group, the Los Angeles-based company that will manage the Sprint Center, issued this statement: "As part of the ongoing process of bringing an NHL franchise to Sprint Center, meetings are scheduled with the ownership group of the Pittsburgh Penguins and our organization. A media briefing to discuss where we are with this process and the next steps is scheduled for a late morning press conference [today] in Kansas City."
Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes was in Washington, D.C., on business. Boots Del Biaggio, who has a contract to own any NHL team that operates in the Sprint Center, was in California yesterday. Brenda Tinnen, the arena's general manager, did not return a phone call and was said to be in meetings all day. There were no public appearances or sightings of Lemieux in Kansas City.
Ravenstahl said he was not particularly perturbed that the team ownership was in Kansas City on the eve of today's meeting on Plan B.
"They made it pretty clear over the last couple of weeks that they're exploring other options," he said.
Neil deMause, co-author of the book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit, described the situation as being about leverage. He compared it to the situation in Chicago in 1988 when White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf courted St. Petersburg, Fla., while angling for a new stadium.
"Reinsdorf was quoted at the time as saying, 'A savvy negotiator creates leverage.' Whether they are serious or not, the Penguins would be foolish not to create the impression they're going to Kansas City," deMause said in a telephone interview.
"Kansas City is absolutely a dream scenario. Everybody knows the Sprint Center doesn't have a tenant and they need one. Mario Lemieux has to explore his options," deMause added. "Plan B is already on the table. At what point do Mario and officials from the city and the state meet in the middle?"
Jim Balsillie, the Canadian billionaire whose agreement to purchase the Penguins was withdrawn last month over stipulations imposed by the NHL, is still interested in the Penguins if they are put back on the market.
"As I stated in my letter to Mario, Pittsburgh is clearly where the team belongs," Balsillie said yesterday in a statement sent on his BlackBerry wireless device. "It's a great hockey market with a great hockey tradition. All it needs is a new arena. Plan B promises a new arena. Certainly, I would still look at this, as would any hockey fan. This team simply has too much promise."
Another former bidder for the team, Andrew Murstein of Medallion Corp. in New York, said his group -- which includes Dan Marino -- is still interested in the Penguins.
"From day one, I said the team should stay in Pittsburgh and just negotiate a better Plan B. That's what should be done, and I predict that's what will be done."
Meanwhile, the mayor of Hartford, Conn., which lost its NHL franchise to Carolina, has written a two-page letter to Lemieux in an attempt to bring hockey back.
"Hartford is looking for an NHL franchise to be a symbol of revival of this city. I believe the Penguins are that franchise," Mayor Eddie A. Perez wrote.
Rich Lord, Shelly Anderson and Robert Dvorchak contributed to this report. Mark Belko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1262.