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A Fistful of Dollars 

If the Penguins want to play, someone has to pay

I always enjoyed it when Clint Eastwood squinted, flicked his cigarette and faced his enemy down with a cold, hard stare. Well, here in the Hill District we’re at that point with the city, the county and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On Dec. 11, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl invited us to a “Neighborhood Meeting” in which he disrespected our entire neighborhood. This was 24 hours after we made a unified stance at the City Planning Commission, demanding it vote “no” on a master plan for the site of a new hockey arena unless all the parties first agreed to a Community Benefits Agreement.

A CBA is an agreement made between private developers, government and citizens when a development gets a large public subsidy. It can include legally enforceable job guarantees, investments in community centers and other assets, and other pledges.

But Ravenstahl told the assembly what he was willing to support. It took about 60 seconds and, sadly, most of it was symbolic and vague. Ravenstahl said he supports talking (he calls it “public input”), a job-resources center (which doesn’t guarantee good jobs), and a master plan for the site (that the Penguins need for the project anyway). He also supports a new YMCA center nearby, funding for which he must get from the state.

What he didn’t support, he said, was the community’s request for a community fund for programs, institutions and development, to be handled by Hill District groups themselves. Gesturing to Marimba Milliones, who chairs the board of the Hill Community Development Corporation, he said he opposed giving “cash payments” to any Hill District organization.

“Cash payments”? Did he think we planned to meet him behind the Hill House with two black briefcases or something? And while he was against providing funding “through this [CBA] process,” the arena construction will be financed with $15 million a year in gambling-tax revenue from the state’s new casinos. (And there are millions more in subsidies contained in the Penguins’ lease terms.)

It seems as though everyone gets to talk openly about money, except the poor and working class. When we ask for it, the mayor and others imply it’s some sort of extortion.

Yes, we want money. Why? It’s called “self-determination.” We want money so we can build the Hill, instead of trying to survive every round of economic exploitation committed by someone else. We want money because it takes money to build a sustainable community. Our lives literally depend upon being able to protect ourselves.

Questions have been raised about the Hill CDC, which lost much of its funding in recent years. And there are differences about how to divide the pie between groups like the Hill House and Hill Consensus Group. But much of the Hill CDC’s “fall-out” crew has since dispersed, and we all desire to see a fully representative board controlling the funds: community-driven, community-focused, accountable and transparent to all. The Hill CDC has proposed creating a Greater Hill Development League, which would include all the Hill’s development agencies.

Anyway, if the Penguins can reinvent themselves after two bankruptcies and still reap millions in subsidies, I see no reason why the Hill CDC and other groups can’t, too.

At the end of the day, you have to ask not “who?” but “what?” What is the most progressive thing to do? Should Hill groups receive money for their programs, or should they receive no “cash payments” (we call it funding) from the city, county or the Pens? Should Ravenstahl get away with saying he supports the “concept” of a Hill District grocery store? Or should he and his staff work to help secure funding so we can build some type of cooperative grocer? Should there be proper reinvestment based on the legitimate needs of the Hill? Or should the Pens run off with millions of dollars of tax money?

If you have any sense of history or justice, or want to see our communities become more self-reliant, you should side with us.

We want shared prosperity. We want to evolve just as Downtown and Uptown evolve. To resist a community fund is selfish and greedy, and it offers merely a symbolic victory to a community that needs long-term sustenance.

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