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Penguins' pleas

If only Mario Lemieux were still generating such excitement when he's on the ice. Maybe the Penguins wouldn't be one of the worst teams in the NHL.

 

Just look at what he accomplished with a few choice words on Dec. 14. That's when the Penguins owner told local reporters that "we're really running out of time" to build a new arena, and that there was only a "slim chance" of the Penguins staying in Pittsburgh after its lease at Mellon Arena expires. "It's been unfortunate that the city and the county haven't been willing to work with us over the last two or three years," Lemieux added.

 

Lemieux might not have noticed, but the city's had other things on its mind during the last two or three years. Like not going bankrupt. Still, this is one Penguins' power play that may not fizzle -- even though it might not succeed the way Lemieux intends.

 

His warnings generated a predictably frantic response. Rumors of the Pens moving to Kansas City began circulating, and local officials insisted the team could still be saved.

 

So far, the team has pinned its hopes on the state's new gambling law. Pittsburgh is slated to get a new slot-machine parlor, and if the Penguins secure that license, they can use slots revenue to bankroll a new arena.

 

On its face, this would seem a sensible proposal. Even if you disdain gambling, you'd probably prefer the profits to benefit a local sports team, rather than a Las Vegas corporation. Publicly, officials including Gov. Ed Rendell have said that slots money is the Penguins' best hope.

 

Privately, however, Grant Street insiders say that Rendell is the Penguins' worst nightmare. The governor, it is widely believed, fervently supports a rival proposal to put the slots parlor beside Station Square. It's not hard to imagine why this would be so: Station Square's owners, the Ratner family of Cleveland, have contributed nearly $150,000 to Rendell's campaign war chest since 2002. (Party insiders see other omens as well: "Every time Rendell comes to Pittsburgh, he stays at the Station Square Sheraton," one contends.)

 

Incoming mayor Bob O'Connor wouldn't likely buck Rendell's choice. For one thing, Pittsburgh still needs Harrisburg's help to stave off bankruptcy. Then too, O'Connor himself has received nearly $30,000 from the Ratners. Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, for his part, took $20,000 from the family in 2004. 

 

Lemieux, meanwhile, has sat out the influence-peddling game. Over the years, the chief beneficiary of his fund-raising has been U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

 

Theoretically, of course, the slots license will be awarded not by Rendell, but by a state Gaming Control Board. The five-member board is chosen by the governor and the party leaders in the state Legislature. Supposedly, that makes the board bipartisan and independent: Last month, in fact, outgoing mayor Tom Murphy was pilloried for suggesting that the "fix is in" for the Ratners.

 

Murphy's remarks were ill advised, but if there's one thing Murphy knows, it's how easily politicians can bully "independent" appointees. (Just ask the appointees who rubber-stamped Murphy's own stadium-financing proposal, Plan B.) I don't know whether Rendell really would exert his will on the Gaming Board. I only know that he could.

 

The only thing easier than rolling appointees, in fact, is sticking taxpayers with the bill. Little wonder, then, that local officials are talking about doing just that.

 

Assuming Lemieux doesn't get his gambling license, local officials could build the arena by tapping a $90 million state development fund. O'Connor, Onorato and Rendell are already contemplating this option, and why not? It's the kind of compromise politicians like: Everybody gets what they want, except the taxpayer. The Ratners can get their gambling license, and Lemieux can get off everyone's back. O'Connor can go on getting amusement- and parking-tax revenue from Pens games, reaping money from affluent suburbanites.

 

The only losers are the rest of us. If state money is spent for an arena, it won't be available for projects that might benefit residents more. Once again, residents' needs may be sacrificed for a bunch of spoiled millionaires. This time, though, the millionaires wearing jerseys won't be the only ones to blame.

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