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North Shore amphitheater likely delayed until spring

Monday, September 15, 2003

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two important pieces of the North Shore revitalization are ready to move ahead, but a proposed amphitheater project probably won't get off the ground until next spring, nearly a year later than anticipated.

Developers plan to break ground this month or next on the six-story Equitable Resources headquarters and a 198-room Marriott Spring Hill Suites hotel.

The Steelers are behind, however, in their efforts to develop a 5,600-seat amphitheater near Heinz Field.

Frank Kass, chairman of Continental Real Estate Cos., the firm chosen by the Steelers and the Pirates to develop the land between the two stadiums, said Continental hopes to break ground on the $30 million Equitable Resources building no later than Oct. 1.

Separately, Harmar-based Kratsa Properties expects to begin construction on a $15 million, 10-story Spring Hill Suites hotel at Federal and General Robinson streets across from PNC Park this month or next. The firm is still shooting for completion in fall 2004.

"We've had some hiccups," said Michael Kratsas, vice president of development for Kratsa Properties. "We're just getting through those."

The Steelers, meanwhile, find themselves behind schedule in their efforts to develop a fabric-roof amphitheater in the parking lot just east of their stadium. Team officials originally had hoped to start construction on the $10 million project in June, but they now don't anticipate breaking ground until next year and have yet to land a promoter for the venture.

Steelers President Art Rooney II said last week the amphitheater probably won't be completed until 2005, although there is a chance a temporary venue could open sometime next summer.

Rooney said the Steelers' hopes of starting construction this summer were sacked by the economy and a less-than-robust music industry.

"The appetite for investing dollars in a new facility is probably a little tighter than it's been," he said.

The Steelers are still talking to several music promoters about joining the venture, including the national House of Blues music club. The Rooneys have hired one of their own, former Penguins executive Tom Rooney, a cousin of Steelers owner Dan Rooney, to jump-start the project.

Tom Rooney brings far more than family ties to the endeavor. He has extensive experience in the entertainment business, working for nearly a decade for Houston-based Pace Entertainment, during which he served as executive director of the Star Lake Amphitheater, now the Post-Gazette Pavilion, in Washington County.

During his time with Pace, Rooney oversaw some 15 entertainment sites. Known for his marketing skills, he was fired by Penguins owner Mario Lemieux in March and now runs his own consulting business, Rooney Sports and Entertainment Group.

Rooney said the Steelers are exploring a potential promoter-partner relationship with House of Blues as part of the amphitheater project.

"I think we've progressed beyond casual," Rooney said of the discussions.

The Steelers also are considering construction of a permanent building with up to 1,000 seats that would serve as an indoor nightclub and concert venue during inclement months.

House of Blues has one club in the Northeast, in Cambridge, Mass. It is planning to open one in Cleveland near Jacobs Field in fall 2004.

According to its Web site, House of Blues Entertainment Inc. has become the second-largest live music promoter in the world. It operates seven clubs and 22 amphitheaters in the United States and Canada. House of Blues officials had no comment on the North Shore project.

Mark Schneider, chairman of the Stadium Authority board, which controls the land between the two stadiums, said he was concerned about the delay in the project.

"We'd like to see it get moving," he said.

Mayor Tom Murphy is seeking to avoid the same mistakes made after Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970, when grand plans for restaurants, hotels, office buildings and stores never materialized and the city was left instead with a sea of parking lots.

The proposed Continental development -- a mix of office, residential and retail -- would sit next to the amphitheater and stretch to PNC Park. Continental is the developer for the booming Waterfront complex in the Homestead area

The Equitable Resources building, to be completed in December 2004, is the first tangible piece of that development. Within six months, Kass said he is hoping to start another building -- a seven story, 300-unit apartment complex with retail, restaurants and entertainment on the lower levels.

Kass said he has been having discussions with three steak houses, "the best Italian restaurant in the country," a seafood restaurant, "some really cool pubs," and a "great entertainment venue" about locating on the North Shore, but he has yet to secure any commitments. He would not name any of them.

He said the two stadiums have helped to stimulate interest.

"At the Waterfront, we had to make a market. This one already exists. There's just a certain panache to the North Shore," he said.

Kratsas, who has been talking to national chain and local restaurants about locating at the hotel, also likes the spot.

"It's a good location. Not too many hotels have that synergy right outside the door with all the restaurants and bars," he said.

Mark Belko can be reached at or 412-263-1262.

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