Smizik: Efforts should go into a fair Plan B

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Let me see if I have this right: After their entry fails to win the slots license, the Penguins and the NHL, a league that is threatening to disappear from the major sports scene, are not so subtly threatening to relocate a franchise that after finishing in last place for four consecutive seasons and while facing one of the worst teams in the league on a Tuesday night in December draws a packed house of more than 17,000 in a decrepit facility?

The threat rings just about as true as "the fix is in," which was the pathetically desperate and oft-repeated attempt by the MFOM (Media Friends of Mario) to discredit the entire slots licensing process.

It didn't work. Their shameless attempt to smear politicians that were in no way connected with the process also didn't work.

The fix was not in. The least politically connected of the three applicants for the license turned out to be the winner.

Coming out on top was outsider Don Barden of Detroit, who neither had the political connections of the Forest City group -- who the liars said would be the recipient of the fix -- or of the Isle of Capri, which had the backing of the Penguins, their legendary and universally admired owner Mario Lemieux and who were fronted by a superb lobbyist, the very politically connected David Morehouse.

Barden won because of old-fashioned values, not because of 21st century smear tactics. He won because he had the best plan in the best location. Yes, better than the Isle of Capri's plan, which promised $290 million toward a badly needed new arena.

At a news conference Monday, which was viewed as a final attempt to sway the Gaming Control Board, the seven-person panel that awarded the license, Lemieux wondered aloud how it would be possible to turn down $290 million of private money for a public building.

The answer came Wednesday when it was acknowledged that the board's own consultants determined that Barden's plan would produce the most revenue for the state. That's a point that never sunk in with many, mostly because the Isle of Capri and MFOM tried to make this about what was best for the Penguins. In the end, truth won. It wasn't what was best for the Penguins, it is what's best for the state and the region.

Barden's North Shore plan clearly was the best location, away from neighborhoods, with plenty of room to build and nearby access to many major highways. The design was superb and the plan, according to the board, the best. Not even the out-of-character whining from the Pirates and Steelers can alter those facts.

With the slots license determined, all efforts must be put forward to develop a Plan B that will be fair to the Penguins and keep them here. That's the job of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato. Gov. Ed Rendell, who was relentlessly trashed by MFOM, also will help. The treatment of Rendell by MFOM has been beyond reason. He was crucified for remaining impartial in the licensing process, although by the very nature of his position -- he appointed three of the board members -- he had to be neutral. It was typical of the smear tactics of Isle of Capri supporters.

Plan B took on new urgency yesterday when Lemieux, in a written statement, said, "... starting today, the team is off the market and we will begin to explore relocation options in cities outside Pennsylvania." He also said in the immediate future the team would "begin discussions with local leaders about a viable Pittsburgh arena plan."

It certainly is within Lemieux's right to consider all options. When he took over the team in 1999, rescuing it from bankruptcy, he never expected to be connected with it this long. He wants his money and he wants to get out. He deserves both of his wishes.

Under the current Plan B, the licensing winner puts up $7.5 million for 30 years, another $7 million comes out of the state's slots fund annually and the Penguins are expected to contribute $4 million a year after an upfront contribution of $8.5 million.

The Penguins' portion is negotiable and will be even more so with the leverage Lemieux has. The Penguins should be expected to put up about as much for the arena as the Pirates did for PNC Park, which was about 18 percent. If Lemieux can whittle that lower, more power to him.

Although relocation of the franchise is not likely, nor is it out of the question, attempting to drive too hard of a deal with Penguins ownership on Plan B could force the team out of town.

A primary option is believed to be Kansas City, which has a new arena and is awaiting a tenant. Kansas City also has something else. It is the only city in America that has had and lost teams in the NHL, NBA and MLB. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman should think long and hard before he gives a city with such a track record a franchise and even longer and harder before he considers moving the Penguins, where ardent support is proven.

The ugly process of awarding the slots license is behind us. There needs to be a unity of effort by all parties to deliver a fair Plan B to the Penguins and keep the franchise where it belongs.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.


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