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The Ice Man Bummeth

Never mind war, the economy, or fiscal collapse: Mario needs an arena

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Chaos continues in Iraq, while unemployment reaches new highs at home. Pittsburgh teeters on the brink of financial crisis, and the Port Authority may cut evening and weekend bus service.

And through it all, you've probably been wondering the same thing I have:

How is all this affecting Mario Lemieux?

The beloved Penguins legend is hurting, sadly. Since he took the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999 by converting all the back pay owed to him into an ownership stake, he's been waiting for someone to build the Penguins a new arena. Only such a facility, team officials contend, can produce the luxury box and other revenue necessary to shore up the ice beneath it.

But despite the justness of the cause, the Penguins' plight has constantly been bumped from the front pages by such idle distractions as the "war on terror," the stock market collapse, and Pittsburgh's potential for municipal bankruptcy. It's like we've lost all sense of what's really important these days.

In recent months, reports of Lemieux's mounting frustration have been leaking out from the Igloo like Freon from a balky refrigerator. Finally, in early June, there were disturbing reports that Lemieux might want to sell off his stake and play for another team entirely -- perhaps even the hated Flyers or Rangers!

Cynics may have wondered whether the rumors had been planted by the Penguins themselves. The reports did, after all, finally put questions about a new arena back in the headlines. But Lemieux showed he could make his case without such subtleties during a June 5 press conference held at his annual celebrity golf charity event. (And really, what better place to demand things for yourself than at a charity function?) Hockey "has no future here" without a new arena, he warned reporters. "I'm very disappointed in the efforts of the city and the county. ... Nothing's being done from their side."

Which may be just about enough.

Thanks to the bankruptcy agreements, the Penguins are locked into Mellon Arena until 2007. More importantly, the National Hockey League's contract with its players expires in 2004, and negotiations on a new contract are expected to get ugly. Hockey's finances are, in a word, completely pucked up; two NHL teams are in bankruptcy already and the league's TV contract is pitiful. Despite rumors that Lemieux might leave, most observers think he'd have a hard time finding a buyer for the Penguins until the new contract is negotiated.

But Lemieux told reporters that he hoped public officials would invest in his team at a time when no one else will. "I hope they're not waiting" for the collective bargaining agreement to be negotiated, Lemieux said of local leaders. By the time the contractors negotiations are over, he said, "It will be too late."

Thing is, it was the Sports and Exhibition Authority who made the last offer, and that was nearly a year ago. The agency, which built new facilities for the Steelers and Pirates, came up with a financing deal that would use $90 million in state money, $53 million in revenue from the county's 1 percent sales tax, with the balance to come from the team, seat licensing and private sources.

Popular with no one, the SEA's proposal was quickly put on ice. But the Penguins have yet to make a public counteroffer, or to say how much money the team can put up. In any other sport, you'd say the ball was in the Penguins' court, but that's not how this game is being played.

Still, one can understand Lemieux's frustration; he's been waiting for the puck to drop almost since the day he bought the team. In 2001, few public officials wanted to publicly discuss a new arena because of the mayor's race. In 2002, few wanted to discuss it because of the governor's race. In 2003 no one wants to discuss it because of the Allegheny County Executive's race, and no one will want to discuss it in 2004 because that's when the National Hockey League contract expires. Even assuming that doesn't end with a protracted strike -- as it very well might -- in 2005, it will be time for the mayor's race again.

As one Penguins official told me not long ago, "There never seems to be a right time for this."

That might be because it's the wrong thing to do.

While Lemieux was hitting the links with his celebrity friends, Mayor Tom Murphy was hitting up state legislators for the right to levy new taxes on nonprofits and commuters. Murphy argues the city is burdened by universities, government offices and cultural attractions that benefit the entire region but which generate no revenue because they are tax-exempt.

The irony, of course, is that Murphy himself was the guy pleading the hardest to have two of the city's biggest cultural attractions -- the two new stadiums we've already built -- in the first place. It was all part of Murphy's strategy to grow the city out of its chronic deficits, a strategy he's since admitted was imperfect at best.

Meanwhile, the land between PNC Park and Heinz Field has remained mostly fallow, although the project's boosters claimed it would rival the most valuable real estate in the country. To date, the largest publicly announced project on the site is a new headquarters for Equitable Resources, a firm that was located in Downtown Pittsburgh anyway. So far, at least, we've paid hundreds of millions of dollars to move a stadium across the street, just so we could move a headquarters across a river.

The hope is that the stadiums will eventually create a mixed-use retail/entertainment/office/residential development on the North Shore, a project that can compete with the mixed-use retail/entertainment/office/residential development on the South Side. (And, should it ever come to pass, a mixed-use retail/entertainment/office/residential development along Fifth and Forbes avenues Downtown.) The Penguins, too, hope their new arena will create a mixed-use retail/entertainment/office/residential development. Perhaps it will one day be successful enough to steal prosperity away from all the other mixed-use development. But one can imagine how suburbanites will react if, after complaining about the burden of maintaining these cultural attractions this year, Murphy comes back the year after to demand state or county money to build another facility in city limits.

Don't count Lemieux out, though. In the past few days he's shown that he can handle the media as deftly as he handles a puck. All he had was threadbare rumors and some threats he's years away from making good on, but he still managed to create a blizzard of publicity. When Lemieux's closer to being able to leave town, all of our gut-wrenching priorities will, inexplicably, get put on ice.

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