Kansas City builds New Arena, but needs a Team
December 25, 2005 -- Robert Dvorchak -- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Paul McGannon and his group of 100 business leaders will assist his hometown in any way possible to help land an NHL franchise for its new arena. That team just might be the Penguins, but only if they're forsaken in Pittsburgh.

"Here's what I hope. I hope we help Pittsburgh," said McGannon, the president of a civic group called NHL21. "Mario Lemieux deserves a new building. Turning your back on him would be like us turning our backs on George Brett. I hope we get our own team on our own merits and our own hard work. That would be a win/win.

"We're not vultures. We're not in the market to take anybody's team," he added. "I was in college when our hockey franchise left. I wouldn't wish that on anybody. We were sick. It was brutal. It's taken us 30 years to get back in this position. That's a whole generation.".....

That said, it was McGannon who made the four-hour drive across Missouri Dec. 13 when the Penguins played the St. Louis Blues to renew acquaintances with Penguins officials Craig Patrick and Eddie Johnston. A formal invitation was extended to the Penguins to play in a Sept. 30 exhibition game in Kemper Arena. Whether the Penguins accept or not is undetermined, but, at the very least, options are being kept open.

"We'd love to have them sample the barbecue, sample the crowds and look at the new arena," said McGannon, 51, president of Sports Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy Associates Inc. "Our focus is to create a hockey market. The shell of the new arena should be up by then, and we can show them where it is and what it looks like. We have to be vocal about our efforts because if not now, when?"

The grueling issue of franchise location or relocation, pitting naysayers against cheerleaders, should be resolved in the next 12 months. In a nutshell, Kansas City is building its $250 million Sprint Center as part of a $2 billion urban renaissance in hopes of landing an NHL or NBA franchise, while Pittsburgh has a franchise that says it needs a new home to replace Mellon Arena, the oldest and smallest venue currently home to an NHL team.

Like they say in hockey, game on.

A flurry of events have transpired in the two weeks since Mario Lemieux, Hall of Fame player and center of the ownership group that guided the Penguins out of their second bankruptcy, said there was only a slim chance the team would remain in Pittsburgh because there may not be enough time to get a deal in place.

Pledges have been made by Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Mayor-in-waiting Bob O'Connor, neither of whom favor using tax money to build an arena. And the Penguins announced they had teamed with casino-giant Isle of Capri to build an arena and redevelop the lower Hill District, if they can procure a state license to operate a slots parlor. The fate of the license should be known within a year, but under the terms of their lease, the Penguins can begin entertaining offers from other cities in six months. With things unsettled, the franchise is keeping all of its options open even as it says it wants to stay put.

Kansas City isn't the only place expressing an interest in an NHL franchise as an anchor tenant for an arena. Such Canadian cities as Winnipeg and Quebec have expressed interest in luring back a team. While expansion seems out of the question, such franchises as the Penguins, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Nashville Predators could be in play for relocation.

'Status quo was not an option'

A new Kansas City is emerging from the blight of a cowtown past, and sports is a part of a business and entertainment complex designed to lure suburbanites and tourists downtown.

From a 30th-floor vantage point in the offices of The Cordish Co., a national development firm that specializes in urban rebirth, you can see construction that covers an area of nine square blocks anchored by the new world headquarters of H&R Block Co.

Where once stood abandoned buildings and surface parking lots, construction cranes and earthmovers are remaking the landscape. Coming soon will be corporate offices, a convention center expansion, a performing arts theater, condominium units, restaurants, bars, a grocery store, boutique shops, parking garages and a pedestrian corridor.

On one end of the development is the Sprint Center, the outline of which can be seen in the mud and snow as pile drivers anchor its foundation into what was once prairie soil. The 18,500-seat arena is expected to be open for sports events, concerts and other activities in 2007, but its luxury boxes already are sold out.

Funding for the arena comes from a new tax on rental cars and hotel rooms, a burden that falls mostly on visitors instead of local residents. A fee also is being attached to every ticket sold for future events.

It is no small irony that when civic leaders were looking for ideas, a group from Kansas City visited Pittsburgh to see a city remaking itself from the past. Whereas Pittsburgh was built on coal and steel, Kansas City sprouted as a rail hub upon the twin pillars of cattle and agriculture -- or meat and wheat, as the locals say. After years of debate and hand-wringing, civic leaders pushed ahead with a redevelopment plan.

"This is the Show Me state, and we now have something to show," said city manager Wayne Cauthen. "All of these new venues are playing off one another."

The debate over whether to build a new arena was as robust and heated as it was in other cities, officials said. The arguments were familiar; taxpayers balked at subsidizing venues for wealthy owners and highly paid athletes, while proponents saw the value of luring visitors downtown through sporting events. But downtown was so empty that locals wryly joked that it was so bereft of nightlife that one could shoot a cannon off and not hit anybody.

"The status quo was not an option," said Rich Hughes, president of the Kansas City Visitors and Convention Bureau, who expects the arena to be used 200 nights a 'year through sporting events, concerts, shows, circuses and the like. "We finally made the decision to mend our broken heart, which our downtown had become. This is probably as big as any building boom in our history and probably our most important."

The arena is being managed by Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group, which anted up $50 million for construction and is on the hook for any cost overruns.

AEG president Tim Leiweke currently is president of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and has a stake in the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers. He has said the Penguins with Sidney Crosby and their stable of young talent would sell out every ticket if they relocated in Kansas City, but AEG can serve only as a broker in any deal, not as an owner.

"While it is true we've had dialogues with potential ownership groups from both the NHL and NBA, we as an organization are not pursing any franchise that may be playing in other cities," AEG spokesman Michael Roth said last week.

It doesn't take Woodward and Bernstein, however, to put two and two together. If the Penguins aren't wanted in Pittsburgh, a willing suitor awaits in the heartland.

Kansas City, built at the fork of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, has a population of about 460,000 but occupies a land mass about six times larger than the area of Pittsburgh. The 18-county metropolitan area has a population of about 2 million, twice the size it was when the NHL's Scouts left 30 years ago.

"It's not your father's Kansas City," said Paul McGannon.

Baldwin said 'no' to new arena

The Penguins under previous ownership could have had their new arena during the raucous days of Plan B, when PNC Park, Heinz Field and the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center were built, according to outgoing Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.

"We contacted the Penguins and told them we weren't going to take any more heat or encounter any more opposition if a new arena was included, but then-owner Howard Baldwin said 'no,' that he just needed $10 million to upgrade the existing arena," Murphy said.

Baldwin turned out to be shortsighted, and the city secured an agreement that the Penguins could not leave town for at least 10 years in exchange for the upgrades. The franchise since went into bankruptcy, with Mario Lemieux emerging as leader of a new ownership group.

Murphy said another arena deal was on the table four years ago, but Jim Roddey, the then-county chief executive, refused to agree on using tax money from the Regional Asset District for a new arena. RAD money was the foundation for the ballpark, stadium and convention center.

Now the best chance of keeping the Penguins rests on the franchise and its partner, Isle of Capri, getting the slots license from the state Gaming Commission. But Murphy said the prudent course would be to have a backup plan in the works if that license is granted to another applicant.

"This is going to sound familiar, but there should be a Plan B," said Murphy, who became a lightning rod for critics opposed to public financing of sports facilities. "It's really a race to the finish line. It's a no-brainer if the Penguins get the slots license. It's a done deal. If they don't, I'd say chances are less than 50 percent for a Plan B. So it's either going to be an easy decision or a hard decision. We'll know in a year."

Murphy has always maintained that setting aside money for sports franchises was controversial. But he believes that it's unfair to heap criticism on Lemieux or the Penguins for wanting what the Pirates and Steelers were able to get.

He pointed out that the Mario Lemieux Foundation announced a $2 million gift to the Children's Home of Pittsburgh, the largest in the agency's 112-year history, to help it expand adoption and pediatric medical services.

"They care about this city. Why would we not want to keep them here? Why wouldn't we want to help? Why kick it away?" Murphy said.

When the NHL shut down last season during a bitter lockout to get a handle on player costs, the city got an inkling of what it would lose if the Penguins went elsewhere. The city lost $1.6 million in tax revenues, and there also was an estimated $48 million loss for hotels, restaurants, bars and the like, according to city figures.

On Dec. 16, a chilly, snowy Friday night, the first of several demonstrations endorsed by saveourpens.com was held befoe a game against Buffalo to call attention to the Penguins' efforts to procure a new arena.

Jake Morris, 50, of New Stanton, held up a sign made by his daughter that expressed a holiday sentiment: "Dear Santa: I've been good. Can I keep my Penguins, please?".....

Said Morris: "It's the Pittsburgh Penguins, not the Kansas City Penguins. Mr. Onorato, Mr. O'Connor, please find it in your hearts to make it happen for the Penguins. This city wouldn't be the same if they left."