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Sunday Op-Ed: Let's grow with Plan B

We have a choice: Invest and build, or shrivel away. Michael M. Dawida outlines the game plan to make Pittsburgh a destination city

Sunday, May 10, 1998

By Michael M. Dawida

I have been traveling around the world, talking with firms that might come to Allegheny County and give this region the chance to grow economically. Everywhere I go I find that people know Pittsburgh as the home of great sports teams. During the AFC championship game, I was in Italy meeting with a steel manufacturer that we are close to bringing to Allegheny County. The owner in the small Italian city of Mantua informed me that my team, the Steelers, had lost but had fought bravely.

 
  Michael M. Dawida, a Democrat, is an Allegheny County commissioner. 
 

His words told me that, as we think about the economic redevelopment of this region, we should keep in mind what we are famous for.

Of course there is more to us than the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. We have a rich and diverse arts community, many fascinating and safe neighborhoods -- among them Mr. Rogers'. It's a magnificent city, with three beautiful rivers, parks, Andrew Carnegie's original library and museum, easy access to suburbs and even farmlands. One of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century, the cure for polio was discovered here. Yet, it is our sports teams that most people usually use to identify Pittsburgh.

Thus, Plan B makes sense because it capitalizes on a strength we already have. The plan is connected to other initiatives; combining public and private resources to revitalize Pittsburgh as a "destination" -- that is, a place people visit because there are exciting things going on. Imagine our region being a place where organizations can schedule their conventions because their members cannot wait to spend a few days and a lot of dollars here!

Plan B will use a mix of private funds from the sports teams themselves and other major corporate contributors and public funds.

Contrary to what many believe, the funding for the construction costs of the convention center, ballpark and stadium does not involve a new tax. Funds used to cover bonds issued for this construction would come from the existing hotel/motel tax and the Regional Asset District fund. Most of the hotel/motel tax, which is paid by overnight guests at area establishments, is generated by out-of-towners and can only be used to fund the convention center part of the plan.

Nonresidents of Allegheny County pay approximately 25 percent of the RAD tax, which pumps $65 million into local municipalities for property tax reduction. The Stadium Authority and convention center are currently statutory assets that already receive RAD funds by law. Allegheny County residents will not be paying any more taxes than they now are. In addition, those millionaire ballplayers would contribute over $7 million through a payroll tax.

It is also important to note that not one dime will be diverted from any governmental operating budget for this project.

Here are some additional facts about the plan:

There will be no new local tax dollars needed for this plan.

No currently RAD funded organizations will lose funding.

Total private funds have been increased from $85 million to $170 million.

More than one-third of construction funds will go to the convention center $270 million.

Teams will be responsible for operations and maintenance.

Teams will guarantee any cost overruns.

Teams will enter into 25-30 year ironclad agreements.

No money comes from existing city or county taxes.

The Pirates ballpark would be small, intimate and have a view across the Allegheny River framed by our spectacular Downtown skyline. The football stadium would allow the Steelers to be competitive with football teams in their division, all of which will soon be in new facilities. Nearby shops and restaurants would make the area more enticing.

These North Shore developments would lead visitors to the Carnegie Science Center, the Andy Warhol Museum, the Mattress Factory Art Museum and the Children's Museum. They would also have easy access to Downtown, with its cultural attractions and transportation to other parts of the city and region.

Expansion of the existing convention center, along with a promised increase in Downtown hotel rooms, will allow us to capture conventions that now go elsewhere. Many of these lost conventions are typically those sponsored by the high-tech and medical professions. Those types of events have a greater impact on the local economy.

Other city and regional development efforts, such as development of the airport corridor, East Liberty and the waterfront in Homestead are sure to prosper from increased revenue generated by Plan B. Like Plan B, these will stimulate growth by providing jobs, which will put more money into circulation, resulting in more private enterprise and more tax money.

The Regional Asset District collects 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County to support the amenities located in Pittsburgh which benefit the entire region. Foremost is the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a research center and core of countywide library services. The National Aviary, Pittsburgh Zoo, parks, the Carnegie Museum system and many other arts and cultural institutions are also supported by RAD. So is the current stadium. Plan B will ask RAD for an additional $3.4 million a year beyond the $10 million the stadium currently receives.

The additional $3.4 million will come from projected economic growth. Therefore, the funding will not jeopardize RAD allocations now received by municipalities for property tax reduction, the statutory assets or by the arts and cultural groups.

Mayor Murphy and I spoke to about 200 representatives of arts and cultural groups on St. Patrick's Day to reassure them that their funding would not be cut. The point we made was that Plan B and other related projects would provide economic growth. We're an aging population because, as the steel industry and other related industries declined, young people left our area for more good paying job opportunities.

With Plan B and other projects, we will create good-paying jobs here in Allegheny County. When people are employed here, they will take their paychecks home, spend money and pay their taxes here, not in Minneapolis, Seattle or Santa Fe. The new additional tax dollars will enable the county and local governments to enhance services and potentially cut taxes, thereby decreasing reliance on those currently carrying the load. Ballgames and conventions will spur entrepreneurship and spending on libraries, museums, parks and the arts.

If ballparks create jobs, they will also attract visitors. For example, suppose an organization holds its convention in the improved convention center, booking a large number of the expanded hotel rooms. The attendees that go to see the Pirates play, buying dinner beforehand Downtown or on the North Shore.

And then, since they're in the area and there's so much to do, they may go listen to our world-class Pittsburgh Symphony or the exquisite Chatham Baroque the next day. Perhaps they have lunch in Oakland, where they tour the Carnegie Library and Museums and visit the University of Pittsburgh's Nationality Rooms. Maybe they bring their families along, who go to the Heinz History Center in the morning and the Zoo or our National Aviary and Science Center in the afternoon.

We want Pittsburgh to be the kind of city that lures visitors, who will then spend money here.

There are many things on which to spend more public money. But our first order of business must be to get our economic engine running again, so that we can do more than grit our teeth and hold tight as we age and die. Plan B won't solve all of our problems -- who said it would? -- But it will stimulate both excitement and the resources we need to solve our problems.

It is time that we realize that, if we want to help ourselves, we must cast the net of economic development instead of paying for one fish at a time. The economic jumpstart that Plan B provides will have a long-term lasting benefit on the future of Allegheny County. And this is a legacy that our children and grandchildren deserve.



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