Hill District nears benefits agreement
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After more than a year of protests, on-and-off bargaining, and even battles within its own neighborhood, a Hill District group finally appears to be nearing the end of its long odyssey to secure benefits for residents as part of the new arena.
That effort advanced another step yesterday when the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority board signed off on a proposed community benefits agreement with the One Hill CBA Coalition.
A ceremonial signing is planned for Aug. 19, one that is expected to involve One Hill, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and the Penguins, all of whom are parties to the deal.
"It looks like everything's falling into place. It's just taken a long time. It is a long process," said Carl Redwood, the One Hill chairman.
The group that became One Hill first started meeting in April 2007, and organizers soon took to calling the effort the Zeno's paradox because "you'd get halfway there, halfway there, halfway there, but you never really get there. That's what it felt like," Mr. Redwood said.
Even at this late date there's a chance that things can go awry. Mr. Redwood said that if Mr. Ravenstahl, Mr. Onorato, and the Penguins don't formally sign the agreement in advance of the arena groundbreaking Thursday, there could be protests.
"We anticipate that it will be signed prior to the groundbreaking," he added.
Kevin Evanto, Mr. Onorato's spokesman, said the agreement is "99.99 percent there." He said Mr. Onorato "has every intention" of signing the document but could not say whether he would do so before the groundbreaking.
SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo said the agreement still is not in final form, but that did not stop the board from unanimously approving it.
"We approved the concept that we've been talking about for many months and particularly the authority's responsibility [under the agreement]," she said.
The deal provides $2 million, including $1 million from the Penguins, to help develop a Hill grocery store; requires the city and county to help fund a neighborhood master plan; creates a neighborhood partnership program that gives businesses state tax credits for contributing to Hill development projects and establishes a career center partly funded for two years by the city and county.
It also gives Hill residents a one-week window to apply for arena-related service positions before those jobs are made available to the public as a whole. It also calls for the creation of family-sustaining jobs with benefits in the redevelopment of the 28 acres of land where Mellon Arena now sits.
Mr. Redwood said the various components are all positive for the Hill. But he said the best part of the CBA is that "people took a stand and made sure there was a benefit" from the large development encroaching on the neighborhood.
Not everyone is happy with the end result.
State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, said he doesn't believe the Penguins put "anything significant" in the deal. He also complained that negotiators failed to get any commitment for development in the Hill above the 28-acre Mellon Arena site.
"I really don't think this CBA goes far enough, in my opinion," he said.
Mr. Redwood acknowledged that there are dissenters, but he didn't see that as a negative.
"The terms of the community benefits agreement are all positive for the Hill District community. If there's any disagreement, it's that some people think it should be more positive, that's all," he said.
As part of its responsibilities under the agreement, the SEA must keep residents informed about the progress of the arena construction and try to track the number of Hill residents working on the job.
It will try to do that by ZIP code, which drew complaints from one local activist who said it was inadequate. But Mr. Redwood said One Hill was comfortable with the approach.
Also yesterday, the SEA board awarded another $38.47 million in contracts for the arena construction. That follows the award of $52.6 million in contracts last month.
Yesterday's awards went to Cast & Baker Corp., $512,830 for site utilities; Mascaro Construction, $7.8 million for concrete foundations and walls; Crystal Steel Fabricators Inc., $2.1 million for metal stairs and handrails; and Lighthouse Electric, $27.9 million for electrical work. The authority said all were low bids.
Ms. Conturo said construction work should start in earnest next week.
First Published August 8, 2008 12:00 am