As word spread in recent weeks that the One Hill Coalition planned to stage "the mother of all protests" during one of the Pittsburgh Penguins' first two playoff games, coalition leaders say team officials felt the heat -- and made a move they haven't made in months.
"The Pens called us," says Carl Redwood, chairman of One Hill, a grassroots movement of more than 100 community groups seeking a community benefits agreement (CBA). "They want to settle."
Redwood wouldn't elaborate on the meaning behind the Penguins wanting to "settle," and it's not clear what the team is prepared to discuss. Neither the Penguins nor the office of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl returned calls for comment. But Redwood says the phone call is evidence that the Penguins -- who previously have been willing to let city and county officials represent them during negotiations -- are starting to feel pressure from One Hill's mobilization efforts.
Since last summer, One Hill has been fighting for a CBA, which would ensure that when a new $290 million hockey arena is built for the Penguins, 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 neighborhood grocery store, a multi-purpose center and a community-improvement fund, among other requests.
The effort started nearly a year ago, and has gained momentum in recent weeks.
More than 60 advocates from various community groups gathered at the Hill House auditorium in the Hill District on March 29 to discuss mobilization plans that would force the Penguins to negotiate with One Hill. Organizers passed out fliers urging people to sign an online CBA petition (www.theleague.com/pa) and to call Penguins' President David Morehouse.
But Pittsburgh school-board member Mark Brentley Sr. insisted on a more forceful call to action.
"Let's not blow this," he announced, standing up and raising his hand in the air. "Let's stage the mother of all protests -- the first human chain for justice around the Mellon Arena."
The idea was embraced quickly, and One Hill scheduled an April 5 press conference to announce the protest during the Penguins' April 11 playoff game against the Ottawa Senators. But those plans went on hold after Penguins officials called Redwood on April 4, telling him that they wanted to talk with One Hill.
"They called because of the mobilization," Redwood says. "It's because of the work of the people that we're going to be able to have more good-faith negotiations. ... We are trying to give negotiations a chance to work.
"We're trying not to make them feel like they're being forced into anything," Redwood adds. "We want to do this as partners."
One Hill has not canceled the rally outright. It still plans to hold an April 10 press conference to discuss plans for a demonstration the next day, and Redwood says the rally will start an hour before the game's 7 p.m. scheduled face-off. But depending on how negotiations go, the rally itself could take one of two forms.
"If we make progress [during negotiations] by Thursday or Friday, we will have a rally praising the progress," Redwood says.
Not everyone is optimistic. Brentley suspects that the Pens are merely trying to prevent a PR disaster during a high-visibility event: The Penguins are seeded second in the NHL's Eastern Conference and are given good odds to make a strong run at the Stanley Cup. If talks result in "more of the same rhetoric," Brentley says, "I am still preparing for the mother of all rallies.
"We are planning to benefit from the national attention," Brentley explains. "I'm putting a call out to all my white and black brothers and sisters to come out and participate. You won't be able to miss the message."
Brentley has scaled back his plans somewhat, however: His original goal was to form a human chain around the arena -- a task Brentley estimates would take about 400 people -- but he's since tempered his vision, saying a great turnout would be between 200 and 400 people.
"I don't trust the Penguins until [a CBA] is signed and approved," he says. "If they were really serious about it, they would have called us down to sign the agreement."