Smizik: Blame Rendell if deal fails

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During the long and heated run-up to the awarding of the Pittsburgh slots license, this column was a frequent defender of Gov. Ed Rendell. The belief here was that Penguins/Isle of Capri supporters were unfairly attacking Rendell, even going so far as to tell lies when they thought their outrageous exaggerations weren't enough.

They were furious Rendell was not supporting the IOC proposal, although he would have been derelict in his duties if he had not remained neutral because he appointed three members of the Gaming Control Board. They were livid when Rendell proposed Plan B, although he was acting in the best interest of the Penguins and their fans by doing so -- as subsequent events have shown.

In short, we believed Rendell conducted himself in a responsible manner.

We wish we could say the same today.

In the past two months, Rendell has behaved more like a dunce than a leader, more like a man interested in obstructing the process of getting a new arena for Pittsburgh instead of furthering it.

Had this been a Philadelphia franchise in peril, rest assured his actions would not have been so cavalier. Should the Penguins leave for Kansas City, and the belief here is that will not happen, Rendell will be the man most responsible.

As the power broker in these negotiations -- the only politician with money to spend -- Rendell has behaved recklessly in allowing the process to go as far as it has. His inability -- or was it his refusal -- to get a deal done served to whet the appetite of Kansas City, which originally, and understandably, believed it had almost no chance to get the Penguins.

A meeting Thursday in Philadelphia, one in which NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joined the talks, was fruitful and it looks like plans are moving ahead, although it's too early for any celebrating.

But it didn't have to get this far.

Kansas City was involved in this process more as a stake in the future than in any real hope of landing the Penguins. But as the negotiating process slowed to a crawl, Kansas City, which is offering a new and rent-free arena, saw reason for hope. When the state refused to release important financial information to the Penguins last week, it prompted the team to write a letter to Rendell, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl saying they considered the talks at an impasse and would pursue relocation.

All of a sudden, Kansas City thought it had a chance and reportedly sweetened its offer. Which means the delay was costly if government has to match the Kansas City offer.

This all started so superbly on Jan 4. in a meeting in Pittsburgh that was attended by the three elected officials, Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle and team president Ken Sawyer. The Penguins were so pleased with the meeting, in which the state gave an overview of what it would do, that although Lemieux had not planned to comment at its conclusion he did.

" . . . I'm optimistic with the meeting that we had today with the politicians here in town that they're willing to step up and talk about some issues that were a big concern for us going back seven years,'' he said.

The Penguins felt so good about what was happening in Pittsburgh they put on hold plans to visit other cities.

When the sides met two weeks later, with Lemieux not in attendance, it was a different Rendell on the other side of the table. He played the part of a bully, yelling and pounding the table like a schoolboy. It's possible, those tactics work in political circles. They're not going to work with Burkle, a multi-billionaire, who has been involved with considerably bigger deals than this. They're not going to work with Chuck Greenberg, Lemieux's long-time lawyer, who is a master negotiator and not the type to be backed down by a tantrum.

In the intervening weeks, Rendell made threats about going to the NHL to stop a relocation, if all else failed. His oft-stated reason was that considering the Penguins are drawing well, unlike some teams that change location, there's no way the NHL would allow the Penguins to leave. He was correct that the NHL does not want one of its best franchises to leave. He was incorrect in believing the NHL could do anything to stop such a move.

If the powerful NFL cannot stop franchises from moving, it's highly unlikely the NHL could prevent the relocation of a franchise, especially one without a lease.

It was typical of the do-nothing approach Rendell took for too long.

With the positive news coming out of the meeting Thursday, it looks like a deal will be struck, an arena will be built and the Penguins will stay. It that happens, some will consider Rendell a hero. Don't you believe it.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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