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Taking the Lid Off

The Pierogie on the new Penguins arena

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When I began my write-in campaign for mayor, I was met with bemused indifference. But thanks to grassroots support, I'm proud to say I'm now riding a wave of apathy.

So I empathize with the Hill District as it faces plans to build a new arena next door. Some people outside the neighborhood think neighborhood advocates -- who are seeking $10 million in community investment -- are merely asking for handouts. I see something else: people making long-overdue demands not just for themselves, but for the city.

When Los Angeles built the Staples Center arena, residents demanded -- and got -- a host of benefits. These included more than a million dollars for parks, set-asides for affordable housing, local hiring and job-training guarantees ... even a residential permit-parking permit. Cities across the country are following suit, using tax-subsidized developments as leverage to address longstanding needs.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl seems to be taking the Hill District's concerns seriously ... when he's not jetting off to New York City. But the Hill should inspire a whole new approach to development. One that considers reducing economic hardship at the outset, rather than as an afterthought.

How would I begin that approach as mayor?

First, I'd require any developer who gets city tax subsidies to hire a percentage of city residents -- and to pay them a living wage well above the state minimum. After all, why lure a company that doesn't pay good money?

Pittsburgh City Council has rejected similar ideas before, and passing them now won't be easy. But because it raises wages for all, a living-wage campaign could unite union leaders and black activists -- two groups who have had little to say to each other until now.

That dialogue is important for everyone. Pittsburgh has workers who are old -- more than one worker out of six in the region is 55 or older -- and poverty among the young. (The Census Bureau says the region has one of the nation's highest poverty rates among 18-to-24-year-olds.) As older workers retire in fields like manufacturing, young people must take their place, or those employers will go away. Union workers and contractors want to build an arena? Fine. They can kick into a job-training fund, so young workers can take jobs as old workers retire.

Often, of course, people who need jobs can't get to them. In neighborhoods like Homewood and the Hill, fewer than half of the residents own cars. Clearly they can't count on the Port Authority expanding service in the suburbs, where the jobs are. But in another Los Angeles jobs program, low-income residents were loaned money to buy cars of their own. We could try a similar program here.

It's not that no one speaks to such needs; it's that too many people speak to them. Dozens of groups compete for influence in neighborhoods like the Hill, and often they focus on only a few city blocks. That makes them easy to divide and conquer ... and to ignore.

Hill groups, for example, are seeking $10 million for themselves; why not replace that demand with subsidized day care for low-income workers all over town? Instead of appeasing one neighborhood, the mayor should push for anti-poverty benefits citywide. Instead of public-private partnerships, a mayor should form public-public partnerships, forging alliances between like-minded groups everywhere.

It'd be a refreshing change from doing deals at the Duquesne Club, at least.

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