Penguins' Future in Pittsburgh in Doubt

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By ALAN ROBINSON
The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 20, 2006; 6:07 PM

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins gambled on getting a new arena for free from a slots-machine casino firm and failed, leaving owner Mario Lemieux with the difficult decision he never wanted to make.

Does a long-successful franchise with an enthusiastic and loyal fan base move on from this setback and negotiate a so-called Plan B deal with state and local politicians? Or do the Penguins simply move to another city?

The Pennsylvania gaming board voted unanimously Wednesday to award Pittsburgh's only slot-machine casino license to Detroit-based developer Don H. Barden's PITG Gaming, rather than Penguins-supported Isle of Capri Casinos. Isle of Capri was committed to building a $290 million arena next to the casino, at no team or taxpayer expense, if it obtained the slots license.

The Penguins were discouraged by the rejection of the Isle of Capri proposal, which came less than a week after Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie pulled out of a seemingly completed $175 million deal to buy the 40-year-old franchise. Balsillie apparently was scared off by the NHL's insistence that he couldn't move the club if the Isle of Capri proposal was rejected.

Now, the Penguins must find not only a new buyer but also a new way to build the arena or, if Lemieux has exhausted his patience after seeking a new arena for seven years, a new city in which to play. Kansas City, Houston and Portland are interested in landing one of the league's youngest and most promising teams, led by two stars who have yet to turn 21 in NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"At this point, our franchise enters a period of uncertainty, with our lease at Mellon Arena set to expire this summer," Penguins chief executive officer Ken Sawyer said. "We will re-evaluate all of our options before deciding on a course of action and making further comment."

The Penguins' lease at 45-year-old Mellon Arena ends in June, and Lemieux is free to move the team after that. But the Hall of Fame player, one of the most popular athletes in Pittsburgh history, likely would move the team only if he has no other option.

Still, Lemieux warned on Monday, "We own the franchise, and we decide the fate of the franchise."

Even as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman issued a doom-and-gloom statement that the Penguins' days in Pittsburgh might be ending, state and local leaders rushed forward with promises that a new arena can be financed and built independently of any gambling parlor.

"The decision by the Gaming Commission was terrible news for the Penguins, their fans and the NHL," Bettman said in a statement. "The future of this franchise in Pittsburgh is uncertain and the Penguins now will have to explore all other options, including possible relocation. The NHL will support the Penguins in their endeavors."

A preliminary proposal from Gov. Ed Rendell calls for the Penguins to contribute about $8 million upfront and $4.5 million a year for 30 years for an arena that would be built near Mellon Arena. The site has been purchased, for about $20 million, and officials said a groundbreaking ceremony could be held within days of a deal being struck.

"I will shortly reach out to the Penguins' owners about finalizing our financing package for the new arena," Rendell said Wednesday.

Rendell said he is uncertain how much negotiating would be required because the Penguins, citing their contract with Isle of Capri, have declined until now to consider any other proposal.

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl jointly promised the Penguins a new arena, and soon.

"Let me reach out to Mario here," Onorato said. "What the two of us are committing today is that we're going to be here under this plan and get it done."

Ravenstahl added, "There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that we can get this deal done."

The winning bidder for the Pittsburgh casino, Don Barden, is committed to contributing $7.5 million a year toward the Plan B arena, and an additional $7 million would come from a state development fund _ a considerable chunk of the estimated $300 million-plus price tag.

Now that the Isle of Capri plan has failed, the Penguins' alternate path to a new arena now appears to be paralleling that of the Pirates and Steelers.

In 1998, Plan B deals to build new stadiums for the Steelers and Pirates were negotiated and completed only weeks after Allegheny County voters overwhelmingly rejected a half-cent increase in the county sales tax to pay for the stadiums.

This time, the Steelers and Pirates reacted nervously to the news that Barden's casino would be built within a few blocks of their stadiums, possibly creating traffic congestion on the fast-developing North Side _ especially on weekends. The casino is to be built next to the Carnegie Science Center, which is across the street from the Steelers' Heinz Field.

"We are extremely disappointed in the decision of the Gaming Commission to award the casino license on the North Shore," Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement. "It seemed it was a process that was designed to give little weight to local interests and the result is indicative of that. We will have to consider all of our options in determining how to respond to this decision."

Barden, who owns five other casinos, said his Las Vegas-style casino is expected to open in March 2008, a month before the Pirates' season begins.

Pirates president Kevin McClatchy promised to work with Barden, but said he is discouraged that Lemieux now must begin his arena quest anew. McClatchy also wondered if parking and logistical problems might develop when two disparate entertainment crowds _ one seeking baseball, the other big bucks _ converge a few blocks apart.

"I don't think mom and dad are going to bring the Boy Scouts to the casino and then go to the Pirates game a few hours later," he said.


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© 2006 The Associated Press

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