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Plan B naysayers, big, small

Wednesday, March 11, 1998

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An $803 million proposal to build two stadiums and enlarge the convention center has spawned a variety of opponents, including Allegheny County Commissioner Larry Dunn, the local Libertarian Party, an anti-tax group called the Good Sports Coalition and the conservative think tank Allegheny Institute.

Marlene Sprohar faces a move from her long-time home on Burdock Way.(Bob Donaldson Post-Gazette)

And then there is Marlene Sprohar.

The diminutive North Side woman has lived 53 of her 55 years in a small row house, located on a courtyard on Burdock Street, just off Federal Street and next to a six-story senior citizen high-rise by the Sixth Street Bridge.

Unfortunately for Sprohar and the occupants of the other 16 row houses, their homes sit smack in the middle of the site desired by city and county officials for a $228 million Pirates baseball park.

"It's a shame," Sprohar said yesterday during an interview in her cozy living room. "These row houses have been here for over a hundred years. I was raised here. But (stadium proponents) don't care. All they think about is putting people on the street. They just want to tear down our houses."

Property acquisition is expected to start by summer, as Mayor Murphy and county Commissioners Bob Cranmer and Mike Dawida race an April 2001 deadline for having the Pirates playing ball in their new digs.

"They've got a ballfield now. Why do they need another one?" said Sprohar, asking a question that many other critics of the so-called Plan B have posed. "They've got all that space around the Kaufmann's warehouse. I don't know why they can't put it there."

The area around the warehouse is being targeted for the $233 million football stadium.

The third project, the $267 million expansion of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, would triple that facilities existing exhibit and meeting space.

"And they want taxpayers to pay for (the stadiums)," Sprohar added. "I don't think it's right. Taxpayers voted against that" in last November's referendum.

Senior citizens who live in the six-story Three Rivers Plaza apartments are also concerned, because their building must be razed so the ballpark can be built.

City Councilman Dan Onorato said he would work to ensure that new senior citizens housing will be built, possibly on the so-called farmers market site, a parking lot just west of Allegheny Center mall, before the current high-rise is torn down. The new site is about three blocks north of the current high-rise.

Also concerned is Connie Campana, owner a deli on Federal Street that will have to be razed to make way for the Pirates park.

"It's going to happen, I guess. Everybody's got to move" so the park can be built at the north end of the Sixth Street Bridge, Campana said.

"I don't want to stand in the way of progress, but I'm worried that we will get put out on the street. I like this location. There's good walk-in traffic" for hot and cold lunches, cigarettes, candy, chips and other items.

"People are upset with the taxes" going to fund the two new stadiums, she said. "There should be more from the players and owners."

That's what Cranmer is saying. He's leaning on the Steelers to increase the $50 million they've agreed to provide for the football stadium and, to a lesser degree, on the Pirates for more than the $35 million they've agreed on.

Proponents of the massive construction plan contend there will be major benefits to the public from the investment of tax revenues. One will be anchoring the Pirates and Steelers here for the next 25 to 30 years, along with the nationwide and worldwide identity they provide for Pittsburgh.

Also, once Three Rivers Stadium is razed, a major commercial/hotel/entertainment development called the Pittsburgh Destination Center is to be built between the two new stadiums.

Murphy is hoping for a "first-day attraction," some kind of high-tech amusement park or other tourist generator, for the North Shore site, along with restaurants and perhaps an amphitheater.

Local officials are hoping to duplicate the success Baltimore has had with its Inner Harbor attractions, which include shopping, the National Aquarium, a convention center and the Orioles Park at Camden Yards.

There are three funding components for the $803 million Pittsburgh-Allegheny County package:

$305 million to come from a local bond issue that will be paid off with county sales tax and hotel tax revenue.

$328 million from the state and federal governments.

$170 million from private sources.

That formula puts private funding at 21 percent of the total package.

But Gerald Bowyer, president of the Allegheny Institute, said yesterday he questions whether some elements of the so-private package are really private.

A 5 percent surcharge to be levied on baseball and football tickets is expected to raise $22 million in what has been labeled as private funding, but Bowyer said that was not really from the private owners of the teams because the surcharge would be paid by the general public attending games.

He also questioned how a $7 million item in the package -- to be paid through a payroll tax on players -- is private. Even if the tax is legal -- which Bowyer doubts -- it's a tax, not a private contribution, he said.

As for the Plan B announced Monday, Bowyer said, "I say, back to the drawing board. It's too reliant on taxes paid by the public."

Referring to the November referendum when Western Pennsylvania voters rejected an increase in the sales tax to pay for stadiums, he said, "When people voted no, they weren't just voting no on a tax hike. Polls show people are overwhelmingly opposed to taxpayers' dollars going for stadiums, whether it's existing taxes or tax increases."

Commissioner Dunn agreed. He called the Plan B announced Monday "a giant shell game in which Cranmer, Dawida and Murphy are attempting to divert Regional Asset District dollars from libraries and museums that are critical to the education of our children, the zoo and other parks."

The county sales-tax revenues, which would help pay off bonds sold for the stadiums and convention center, are administered by the Regional Asset District, which also funds libraries, city and county parks and recreation facilities, including the zoo and aviary.

"What part of 'no' don't Cranmer, Dawida and Murphy understand?" Dunn asked, referring to voters rejection of the sales-tax increase.

"They have broken trust with the people of Allegheny County to subsidize wealthy team owners, making billionaires out of millionaires," Dunn charged.

Also hitting hard at the idea of public subsidies for the wealthy was Dan Sullivan of the Good Sports Coalition, a citizens group.

"We won at the polls and showed clear public opposition to stadium subsidies, but the corporate welfare queens will railroad them through anyhow if we let our guard down," he said.

He said the publicly funded stadiums were being sought by "subsidy-sucking interests" that should be opposed.

Both he and Bowyer said there should be no public subsidies for these projects unless another referendum is held.

Murphy has said that because the Plan B funding formula doesn't involve an increase in taxes, no referendum is needed.

"By not putting this (Plan B) on the ballot, (city and county officials) are implicitly conceding that the people are opposed to it," Bowyer said.

His Allegheny Institute played a major role in marshaling public opposition to the November referendum for a sales-tax increase.

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