The One Hill Coalition is a step closer to finalizing a community-benefits agreement (CBA), having announced at an April 23 press conference that the group has reached a tentative deal with government officials and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are seeking to build an arena adjacent to the Hill District.
Although none of the parties has solidified an official agreement, coalition leaders say the city, county and Penguins have agreed to terms that would: give Hill District residents dibs on family-sustaining jobs; establish a job-referral center; and pledge $2 million for a neighborhood grocery store. They have even found common ground on one of the most contentious discussion planks, agreeing to replace a community-development fund with a state-run tax-credit program.
"It took some creativity," says One Hill's chief negotiator, Evan Frazier. "Given the circumstances, we felt [the tax-credit program] was the best way to find an agreement."
One Hill is trying to ensure that when the Penguins' new $290 million hockey arena is built, the long-neglected Hill District benefits as well. And for the first time since negotiations began nearly a year ago, coalition leaders are optimistic about their chances, especially since officials have recently made proposals that reflect One Hill's blueprint of community needs.
City and county officials have staunchly opposed the idea of a $10 million community-controlled fund for months. Their compromise with One Hill would replace that proposal with a state tax-credit program that could potentially provide $6 million over the next 12 years for neighborhood support, including youth services and drug and alcohol programs.
The state's Neighborhood Partnership Program (NPP), which began in 2004 as a modified version of a program initiated in 1997, would provide private companies with tax credits equal to 75-80 percent of their contribution to the community.
"It's been a hugely successful program," says Bryce Maretzki, policy director for the state's Department of Community and Economic Development. "We've had no real glitches."
Over the past decade, the tax-credit programs have financed 26 projects, totaling $16 million worth of state tax credits, according to Maretzki.
The South Side Local Development Corporation (SSLDC) has been working with the tax-credit program since its inception in 1997. Since then, a partnership with PNC Bank has helped construct nearly 150 housing units, Maretzki says.
"[The tax-credit program] has been exceedingly successful," says SSLDC Executive Director Rick Belloli. "It's been very beneficial to the South Side."
Belloli says PNC Bank has been contributing $250,000 per year for the last 10 years. A number of other employers, including UPMC and American Eagle, have recently been added as contributors.
If, and when, a deal is reached for the Hill District, Frazier says the Hill House, the neighborhood's long-standing community center, will serve as the program's sponsor, and will administer the community programs funded by the NPP.
Maretzki says the state requires two reports per year. State officials also do periodic on-site visits to make sure corporations aren't making empty promises to get tax credits.
Although One Hill Chairman Carl Redwood said there are a few companies "lined up" to contribute to the program, he would not say who they were. When asked if the Penguins were one of them, he said, "Not necessarily."
Penguins' officials were more frank.
"[The contributor] won't be the Penguins," said Ron Porter, the team's senior consultant. "The Penguins will support [the program]."
According to Frazier, "The Penguins have agreed that they would help identify the right corporate sponsors."
Although the Penguins won't be funding the tax-credit program, the team isn't dodging monetary contributions to the neighborhood. According to One Hill, the Penguins are still pledging $1 million toward a grocery store.
Despite One Hill's optimistic announcements, though, city and county officials are keeping mum about the prospects for a deal.
"The CBA is not finalized yet," said Kevin Evanto, spokesperson for County Executive Dan Onorato. "Until we have it finalized, we're not going to comment on any provisions that One Hill may have shared with the media."
Joanna Doven, the mayor's spokesperson, also said the mayor would not comment for this story.
One Hill's nine-member leadership committee already unanimously voted to accept the tentative agreement. And on May 3, each of the coalition's more than 100 member organizations will vote for or against it.
Maryellen Hayden says her group is leaning toward the former.
"I think [the tentative agreement] is great," says the Western Pennsylvania head organizer of ACORN, a community group advocating for social justice. "This is the best bet we could have hoped for."
One Hill plans to announce the results of the coalition's vote on May 3. After that, Frazier says, all parties could be ready to sign on the dotted line.
That would bring an end to months of negotiations ... and a smile to Hayden's face.
"This is a landmark thing for our communities," she says. "It's unprecedented. It's wonderful."