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Lemieux's Ruse 

Laying a bad foundation at the arena groundbreaking

Headlines about taxpayer-funded sports facilities always remind me of the old mobster who wanted to go legit -- because that's where the real money is.

The latest example came Aug. 15, when the Penguins broke ground on their new $290 million arena in the Hill District. Chatting with reporters, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux revisited last year's controversial negotiations, in which the Pens threatened to move if they didn't get the arena deal they wanted. As news cameras rolled, Lemieux acknowledged that moving "wasn't a possibility," but just an effort to "put pressure on the city and the state."

"Those trips to Kansas City and Las Vegas and other cities were just to go, have a nice dinner and come back."

Strangely enough, back in the spring of 2007, when the Pens were threatening local officials, they didn't say anything about the quality of the restaurants. In a public letter, however, they did point out that in Kansas City they had been "greeted by open arms [and] treated as valued new partners in the community. ... The terms of the deal offered in Kansas City were for a rent-free arena with no risk of cost overruns ..."

Within a few days of that letter, Lemieux got the deal he wanted: Some $10 million in cash upfront, plus millions more in slot-machine revenue, protection from cost-overruns, naming-rights revenue, etc. etc.

In the mob, they call this sort of tactic extortion. But when you're a millionaire seeking tax subsidies for a nine-digit project, it's just business as usual: Play cities off each other and get the best deal you can. Even City Paper -- which can barely get into Lemieux's ZIP code, let alone his head -- saw this coming. As this space noted in December 2006, if Lemieux wanted to squeeze politicians, he need only "talk about how pleasant winters are in Kansas City." A week later, Lemieux was off sampling KC's distinctive cuisine.

But everyone panicked back then, and no one seems to care much about Lemieux's ruse now. Amongst the folks I've heard from, the general feeling seems to be, "Good for Mario for beating those shiftless politicians at their own game!" The fact that it's our money -- every bit as much as if we were paying for some patronage job in Public Works -- seems barely to register. For some reason, we resent somebody's cousin getting a $29/hour construction job more than strong-arm tactics used to land a $290 million arena.

In any case, the surprise here isn't that Lemieux played the game. The surprise is that he was crass enough to boast about winning it. Even the most egotistical athlete knows that when you land the fat contract, you don't boast about how you were willing to take a couple million less. You just thank "the best fans in the world," and shut up.

Ironically, the people who might be hurt most by Lemieux's remarks are the Steelers, currently seeking tax dollars to finance a new amphitheater they want to build near their taxpayer-underwritten stadium. The proposal has been met with skepticism even from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial page -- which ordinarily can't say "no" to such deals. The last thing the Steelers need is Lemieux reminding everyone how easy it is for sports franchises to jerk us around.

Of course, there's always the chance Lemieux didn't really mean what he said at the groundbreaking. Perhaps he just told Pittsburghers what he thought we wanted to hear on a festive occasion. But actually, I hope Lemieux was telling the truth this time around -- even if it means he was ripping us off last year. As I write this, Hill District leaders are preparing to sign a "Community Benefits Agreement" promising jobs and reinvestment as part of the new project. It would be a bad omen for that effort if, at the arena groundbreaking itself, Lemieux was laying a foundation of BS.

Besides, team president Ken Sawyer promised that the Penguins are "here in Pittsburgh forever," and who could doubt the word of a Penguins exec now?

Even so, I'm glad the Pens are a legitimate organization. Because if this were the mob, I'd be worried it was the kiss of death.

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