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Arena Development: One Hill/Pens getting close on CBA

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What could have been a rowdy protest staged by Hill District residents during a Pittsburgh Penguins' playoff game became something else instead: a subdued rally praising positive developments in negotiations surrounding construction of a new arena.

Surrounded by a about two dozen supporters at Freedom Corner in the Hill District, Carl Redwood, chairman of the One Hill Coalition, a grassroots movement of more than 100 community groups, announced on April 11 that talks between residents and the team had "made significant progress.

"We look to the very near future to bring a tentative agreement back to the residents of the Hill District," said Redwood.

Since last summer, One Hill has been fighting for a community-benefits agreement (CBA), which would ensure that when the Penguins' new $290 million hockey arena is built, the long-neglected Hill District benefits as well. Because the arena is supposed to be built primarily with public subsidies, the coalition is asking for a multi-purpose community center and community-improvement fund, among other requests.

Although negotiations have had their ups and downs over the past year, Redwood said, "We're closer [to an agreement] than we've ever been before."

Redwood attributes the recent strides forward to One Hill's mobilization efforts over the past few weeks. Hill District residents inundated Penguins' President David Morehouse with phone calls, while word spread that One Hill was planning on staging "the mother of all protests" before the Penguins' April 11 game against the Ottawa Senators. As such efforts mounted, the Penguins began talking directly to community leaders rather than relying on city or county officials, as they had done previously [see "CBA Talks: Pens back at table after threat of playoff protest," April 10].

Redwood says an angrier April 11 protest was called off because "We're negotiating in good faith. We didn't want to blast the Penguins right now. We have to give talks a chance to work."

"We've been having some really positive discussions," Morehouse said after walking off stage with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Executive Dan Onorato at an April 11 Penguins' rally at the county courthouse, about an hour before the One Hill press conference. "Talks are continuing, and I think we're making progress. We're pretty close to reaching a deal."

Yarone Zober, Ravenstahl's chief of staff, agreed, saying, "discussions were really positive" in the past week. Specifically, he said, negotiators jumped a major hurdle, coming to terms on a replacement to the contentious community-development fund.

According to Zober, the mayor, county executive and Penguins' officials are reaching out to corporate leaders, asking them to participate in a state-run program that would provide tax credits to companies in return for their financial contribution to Hill District development. Companies would get tax breaks for any jobs or development they create in the area.

"It's not a development fund, per se," Zober said. "But it's a way to make sure the Hill has the resources it needs."

Both Redwood and Morehouse declined to describe details of the ongoing negotiations, but Redwood says at this point they are just "fine-tuning the language."

As CP went to press, One Hill leaders were voting on whether to take the agreed-upon framework to the larger group for a vote. If both the elected members and the coalition as a whole votes to accept the framework, Redwood said it's possible a tentative community-benefits agreement could be reached in a couple of weeks.

"We've been through optimistic moments and not optimistic moments," Redwood said. "This is a very optimistic moment."

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