Rendell may ask NHL's help to keep Penguins here

Says deal offered team is so good he may urge league to block move

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Gov. Ed Rendell is so confident of the arena deal on the table for the Penguins that he will ask the National Hockey League to block a move if the team tries to relocate.

   
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Gov. Ed Rendell comments on the status of discussions with the Penguins for a new arena:
Still a good deal for the Penguins
Investments by other sports teams on new stadiums and arenas
Three reasons to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh
Baffled by Mario Lemieux's comments
Last resort: Appeal to the NHL Board of Governors

   

However, meeting with reporters yesterday in Pittsburgh, Mr. Rendell stressed that he does not want it to come to that, adding he still is hopeful of working out an agreement that will keep the franchise here.

In Dallas for the All-Star Game, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman expressed the same hope, but warned that time is running out.

"I suppose as long as they're talking, that's a good thing, and our goal, our hope, is that the Penguins stay in Pittsburgh. But that's got to become a reality with some hard decisions made locally," he said.

Mr. Rendell's statements came amid reports that team officials this week may visit Houston, which wants an NHL franchise, and in response to comments Monday by Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who said he was "very disappointed" with the results of a bargaining session between state and local politicians and the team last week.

"We do not want to have to go to the NHL board of governors. We want to conclude this deal and we want to continue to work toward that goal. But we would have no alternative [but to go to the board] given the deal," Mr. Rendell said.

   

Graphic: Comparison of bids between Kansas City, Pittsburgh

   

Under NHL bylaw 36, the NHL can block a move to another city if there is a plan to make the team viable. Among the considerations is whether the club has received a "publicly financed arena, special tax treatment, or any other form of public financial support."

Asked if the NHL would permit the Penguins to move, Mr. Bettman said, "We love Mario, but we're going to have to evaluate any potential transaction on the merits. That's what the board does."

Before allowing a relocation, Mr. Rendell said he believes the league would have to take into account the team's tremendous fan base in Pittsburgh and a "measurably sweetened Plan B" for funding a new arena.

Mr. Rendell reiterated his belief that the deal on the table is better than any of the other professional sports teams in Pennsylvania has received. He said the Penguins share of the construction costs would be "substantially less" than the 18 percent the Pirates put in to PNC Park.

"With the fan base and the deal we offered, it should be a slam dunk for the Penguins to stay here," he said.

Plan B counts on a commitment of $7.5 million a year for 30 years from Pittsburgh casino winner Don Barden and $7 million a year from a slots-financed state economic development fund.

The Penguins originally were called to contribute $8.5 million upfront and roughly $4 million a year toward construction, although the annual amount now is believed to be far lower than the $2.9 million a year the Pirates committed for their park.

Mr. Rendell said he also has agreed to put some state funding into the deal in recognition of both the losses the Penguins have incurred while waiting for a new arena and the fact the team could be playing in a new arena in Kansas City next fall.

The Penguins' Mellon Arena lease expires at the end of June, leaving the team free to move.

But even with the sweeteners, it doesn't seem as if a deal will be easy.

The Penguins are upset with proposals to share development rights near Mellon Arena and parking revenues with Mr. Barden, who has pitched a plan for a $350 million redevelopment of the lower Hill. They also don't like a proposal to pay in excess of $2 million a year in rent when they can get Mellon Arena rent free under a lease extension available next year.

On the other hand, the governor said the Penguins "keep coming up with new requests" in the negotiations. He said the team wants the state, city and county to "make up" $10 million the franchise could owe losing casino bidder Isle of Capri if it gets a new arena deal in Pittsburgh.

He said meeting that demand "doesn't make any sense."

"I'm not sure I would have ever signed that contract. That doesn't sound to me like such a great deal," he said.

The Penguins, he added, also want the state, city and county to "fill the gap" in terms of a proposed 10-year advertising deal they had with Isle of Capri. Mr. Rendell said he has countered with an offer of state tourism dollars to advertise the new arena, but can't do more.

"We can't reconstruct Isle of Capri," he said.

He also disclosed that if the Penguins were to leave Pittsburgh, they could be forced to pay a "significant penalty" -- believed to be about $10 million -- to SMG, the arena master tenant.

The Penguins declined comment on all aspects of the talks yesterday. Mr. Lemieux said Monday "we're going to go out and explore our options. When we get a deal that we like, we'll sign it."

No new talks have been scheduled. Asked if the NHL would intervene in the negotiations, Mr. Bettman replied, "At the right time, if we thought it would make sense to get involved, we would. But right now, I think it's most important that this is being done by the ownership of the club."

For NHL purposes, the Penguins must decide in a "matter of weeks" where they will be playing next year, he added.

"Time is of the essence, but we don't want to portray urgency today. It's urgent, but it's not imminent. It will be shortly," he said.

In Kansas City, which is seeking an NHL franchise, the Penguins are being offered the rent-free use of the $276 million Sprint Center and a share of the building revenues.

There also has been speculation that team officials will visit Houston while in Dallas for the All-Star Game. However, Janis Schmees, executive director of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, which owns the Toyota Center where the Penguins would play, said there have been no "significant discussions" with the team and she's not aware of any visit being scheduled.

Mr. Rendell said he was as frustrated as Mr. Lemiuex in not being able to conclude a deal. He called Mr. Lemieux a "sports icon" and team co-owner Ron Burkle a "great friend."

"So this is tough. I'm negotiating against one guy who as a sports fan I idolize and the other guy who's been a good friend and a close supporter of mine," he said.

Even as the Penguins and state and local politicians haggle over Plan B, the city Planning Commission yesterday approved a proposal to demolish 11 buildings in the Fifth and Centre avenues corridor to make way for the new arena.


Dan Majors contributed to this story. Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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