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Fifth Inning

Voters balk: No! No! 530,706 times no!

Nothing makes southwestern Pennsylvanians crankier and grumpier than taxes. It’s the surest strikeout around.

People who work hard for their paychecks chafe at having the government’s hand dipping into their wallets, no matter what their passions are toward the Pirates and Steelers.votersbalk150x253.jpg (9140 bytes)

The idea of civitas — using common resources for the common good — dates back to Cicero and ancient Greek democracy. It applied to sports venues, and the Romans adapted the same concept to build the Colosseum in Rome.

There’s a more immediate historical precedent which is more illustrative of local attitudes. America’s first civil insurrection, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, occurred in southwestern Pennsylvania when farmers refused to pay an excise tax on corn liquor. They tarred and feathered tax collectors before the federal army crushed the uprising.

Local leaders, however, had no choice in 1997 but to suggest a tax increase to finance the ambitious package of a new ballpark, a new stadium and the expansion of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The political lineup at the time forced their hand. The city didn’t have enough money to go it alone but could not bank on any support from its surrounding jurisdiction, Allegheny County.

Even though Commissioner Mike Dawida bought into the plan, the county was now controlled by Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer, the first Republican majority in county government in 60 years. They had said no — emphatically — to public money for stadiums during their 1995 election campaigns.

So the state Legislature authorized a referendum of voters in the 11 counties around Pittsburgh on whether to authorize a 1/2 of 1 percent increase in the state’s 6 percent sales tax.

Leading the campaign for the tax, known as the Regional Renaissance Initiative, was the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

 
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Timeline

   
 

A little-known business roundtable, the conference was founded in 1943 by financier Richard King Mellon and was integral to the city’s first renaissance.

Mellon concluded that Pittsburgh would die unless it cleansed its smoky skies and shed its dirty, shabby image. Mellon sought suggestions from architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who looked down at the river triangle that was more grime than gold and offered this advice: "Abandon it."

As part of this makeover, when the Point became a park instead of an eyesore polluted with brothels, the Allegheny Conference gave its blessing in 1955 to Three Rivers Stadium, although it took 15 years to become a reality.

Now it went to bat for new sports venues.

"The big intangible is what would the city be without the Pirates and Steelers," said Rick Stafford, executive director of the Allegheny Conference and a former aide to Gov. Dick Thornburgh. "Either we did something or we would be seen as a place that couldn’t compete, that couldn’t get things done, that was shrinking."

"It’s a choice between going up or going down," said Harold D. Miller, the managing director of the Regional Renaissance Partnership that led the drive.

What followed was a $6 million advertising campaign — the most expensive for a local election — that included pitches by former KDKA news anchor Patti Burns and golfing great Arnold Palmer of Ligonier. Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht warned that Pittsburgh could become "a jerkwater town."

But no amount of door-to-door canvassing or celebrity campaigning or newspaper editorials could offset the argument that a stadium tax would benefit players and owners.

"Welfare for millionaires is not in the public interest. It’s extortion," said Dunn.

Opponents handed out tea bags, symbolic of "a modern-day equivalent of the great Boston Tea Party."

In an area that is incredibly resistant to change, the referendum was plagued by myriad problems.

Thomas Usher, chairman of USX Corp., took up the cause as a way to create jobs and preserve traditions. But Usher was the target of a backlash. Former steelworkers in Homestead, Duquesne, McKeesport and other Mon Valley towns never have forgiven his corporation for closing their mills in the 1980s.

State Rep. David Levdansky, D-Elizabeth Township, said: "The captains of Pittsburgh-based industry caused an economic calamity here. I won’t tolerate the rape of the taxpayers’ wallets to bail out corporate Pittsburgh."

The surrounding counties complained that they were shut out of the decision-making process and given no input. They saw stadiums as a Pittsburgh problem.

Some of those working the hardest for its passage sensed catastrophe.

"It’s the most disorganized thing I’ve ever been connected with," Steelers President Dan Rooney said during one campaign stop. "If we ran our football team this way, we’d never make a first down."

Even a change of heart by Bob Cranmer failed to help. A week before the vote, he announced his support but acknowledged later that it was as futile "as a cavalry charge in the last 30 minutes at Waterloo. I knew in my heart it would fail."

On Nov. 4, the voters balked. They said no, no, 530,706 times no, with 281,336 in favor. The closest margin was 58 percent-to-42 percent against in Allegheny. The count was even more lopsided in Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Clarion, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties. A lot of voters just figured there would be a better way.

"That was a devastating night. It was an outright rejection. I kept telling myself there was an alternative that would succeed. That’s the only way I slept that night," said Steve Greenberg, the Pirates’ vice president of ballpark development.

Kevin McClatchy, who with some of his players had knocked on doors to plead his case, heard Patti Burns give the glum concession speech at the DoubleTree Hotel. Then they consoled each other until the hotel’s taproom closed.

"They stayed till the bitter end. They were really in the dumps. It was like a funeral," said Chuck Cohen, a Pittsburgh attorney who was there that night. "People had invested their hearts and feelings into this."

In four months, funding had to be in place or the Pirates could trigger their escape clause, meaning they could be moved if a local buyer was not found in nine months.

But no one gave up.

Dick Freeman, the chief operating officer of the Pirates, was told that night by Mayor Murphy there’d be an alternative stadium-funding plan in place by the time Freeman got back from vacation.

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