Looking After Leeper | Vox Pop | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Looking After Leeper

The end of a SEA voyage

"See, that's why you're a dick," said Steve Leeper, the outgoing head cheese at the Sports and Exhibition Authority.


Why use such language with your intrepid correspondent? It's because I believe him. I'd just told him that despite the "rat deserting the sinking ship" buzz about his imminent departure to a big-deal job in Cincinnati, I actually believe him when he says the real reason he's leaving is more money and an interesting opportunity.


Mr. Leeper takes offense that I would even doubt for a moment that he's telling the truth. But because I'm one of those paranoids who is afraid Pittsburgh is doomed, I too have pondered whether this bodacious bureaucrat is just getting out while the gettin's good. After all, the Captain Queeg of this sinking ship is one Thomas Murphy, who has championed and promoted Leeper for years.


Leeper heads up the giant bureaucracy that got the stadiums and the convention center built. If you like the stadiums (I do) and believe the convention center is worthwhile even though it's currently running a $2 million deficit (I do), you think he did some good work and you take him at his word about why he's leaving to be the point man of a nonprofit development agency chaired by several Cincy corporate bigwigs which aims to redevelop the riverfront and downtown (sound familiar?).


If you're a conspiracy theorist, about a week after Leeper leaves town the convention center will collapse. Or the scoreboard at Heinz Field will explode. Because Leeper spearheaded all these major government projects, and many here object to the outlay of taxpayers' money to complete them, a lot of people think it is Mr. Leeper who is the dick.


"Talk show after talk show after talk show of just whining and complaining," says the departing development whiz. In a nutshell, Leeper thinks he and his colleagues have done a helluva lot of good despite some failures (critics say the Lazarus deal is $14 million down the rathole). He shows pictures of the North Shore pre- and post-development. It is a major aesthetic improvement, to say the least.


But Leeper believes few here can accurately assess the pros and cons because they -- the print pundits, the politicians, and especially the yammering yakkers of the airwaves -- live to play "gotcha."


"It's probably the same school of thought of people who sit there and wait for the job numbers nationally to be bad so Bush looks bad," he says. And Leeper is no Bush lover.


Never in my life have I encountered such a glass-is-half-full kind of guy. I tell him the 31st Street Bridge is a visual metaphor for the decay of the city. He notes that every other bridge looks just spiffy. I tell him the Starbucks in the Strip District is closing. He claims we probably have more Starbucks per capita than any city in America. I tell him $14 million went down the rathole since Lazarus is closing. He says somebody else will occupy the building and it sure does look purty now. I say "potato," he says "po-tah-to" -- but now he's calling the whole thing off.


Leeper pooh-poohed the notion, but I think he's an artist in search of a new canvas. We've done run out of greenbacks to blow stuff up and build other stuff in its place, and this highfalutin' Cincinnati nonprofit has corporate giants like Proctor & Gamble putting muscle and money behind his new job. Think of the stuff you could blow up and build in its place.


I'm guessing Leeper loved it more than life itself when they blew up Three Rivers. It's a development-oriented bureaucrat's wet dream: You've just created an enormous void. You have to fill it with something better. And if it's ugly, or there are massive cost overruns, or God forbid both, you're toast.


People can talk about corporate welfare and the questionable long-term economic benefits of largely taxpayer-funded stadiums, and I tend to agree with the critics. But the North Shore was a shithole, and now it ain't. And that's a big improvement.


Leeper is such a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, he actually thinks Mayor Murphy might have some sort of political career in the future. "He is probably the most misunderstood elected official," says Leeper of his buddy. I asked Leeper if the mayor was through. He said "no." Leeper is grateful to Mayor Tom, whose critics will tell you that in fact he's the dick.

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