March of the Penguins
When President John F. Kennedy said, “For of those to whom much is given, much is required,” he could have been referring to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. So far, he would have been left wanting.
The Penguins have been ladled with the broth of taxpayer support, starting with construction of the arena that kept them here. They pay their rent, but their home ice was built with casino and state gaming money, totaling about $15 million annually to pay debt service.
As part of the deal for the new arena, the Penguins also received the development rights to the former Civic Arena site in the Lower Hill District. It is the premier piece of near-Downtown real estate, publicly owned and long ago paid for by the taxpayers.
The Penguins must purchase development parcels as they go, but they have another $15 million in credit before they start spending any of their own money. And until the whole site is developed, they can use the vacant portions for surface parking, collecting fees on public land they are yet to own.
Even the recent decision by U.S. Steel to build its new world headquarters on the site was mostly a public initiative, not private. Without Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Congressman Mike Doyle and state Sens. Jay Costa and Wayne Fontana, U.S. Steel would be gone.
That project also requires public subsidies, but the company has agreed that one-half of the tax savings it might otherwise get will go to a community fund for improvements throughout the Hill. Again, it is public money that will be earmarked to keep the Penguins’ project from becoming an island like the former Civic Arena.
That Pittsburgh history is the concern of Marimba Milliones, president of the Hill Community Development Corp. In the great tradition of Pittsburgh neighborhood groups, she wants a community improvement agreement with the Penguins that has real teeth, not just promises.
The planning commission’s recent approval of the preliminary development plan is conditioned upon an ordinance to be introduced by Pittsburgh City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, a steady community voice in this process. That law could legally bind the parties and avert appeals and delays.
All big developments require a deft balancing act, especially at launch. The developer wants faster approvals, public officials seek quicker returns on public investment and citizens want a more deliberative process, slowing the march forward as they advocate for the greater good.
The politics can be dicey and the temptation to play neighborhood groups against each other is too tempting for some developers. That strategy always fails and successful developers know to bring people together instead. We should all be cheering for the Penguins.
The enormity of the public subsidy here, what some call corporate welfare, is beyond debate, put in place years ago. What remains is the promise that this site can become that long-lost bridge between Downtown and the Hill District, bringing us together at last.
Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (joemistick.com).