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Pirates PNC PARK: The political struggle over financing PNC Park went into extra innings

Sunday, April 15, 2001

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Nature's way of creating diamonds is to subject carbon molecules to intense heat and pressure over eons of time. Pittsburgh's new $262 million ballpark gem -- and it is that -- wasn't quite so long in the making but is the product of the same kind of heat and pressure, politically speaking.

PNC Park (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Those involved in cutting the deal to finance PNC Park and the new Steelers stadium went on a wild ride. Running counter to much of the public's sentiment, they climbed, hurtled, dipped, careened, nearly derailed and zoomed like they were in a roller coaster car.

That was the way it seemed to Tom Murphy, the mayor who saved the Pirates even though taxpayers balked at raising taxes to pay for a baseball park for players getting paid like CEOs.

"It was like riding the Jack Rabbit at Kennywood. It's fun for a day, but it gets old after a while," Murphy once said of the process.

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While victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan, it was Murphy who drove a stake in the ground to save the Pirates. Insane baseball economics aside, Murphy viewed the team as a brand name of Pittsburgh, a community asset crucial to the city's image. The North Shore ballpark and related projects will be his legacy -- thumbs up or thumbs down -- because he has been stopped cold on his plan to make over Downtown.

A casual baseball fan, Murphy never set out to be a franchise savior. The issue was dumped on him even before he took office, when as mayor-elect, he was told the Pirates needed lease concessions at Three Rivers Stadium to make it through the 1994 season, and some of the team's corporate owners wanted out. The Pirates were for sale.

The search for a new owner was played out in a hostile climate. The 1994 players' strike poisoned baseball's relationship with fans and the club was hemorrhaging money. Kevin McClatchy and his group of investors emerged from a succession of suitors in 1996 to take over controlling interest in the bottom-dwelling franchise (some of the city's biggest corporations, PNC, Heinz, Mellon, USX retained minority shares). By the end of McClatchy's first season, the team had lost manager Jim Leyland and traded away almost every veteran in order to rebuild.

Major League Baseball had stipulated that a new ballpark was a condition of the sale to McClatchy, but Murphy was committed to a new park anyway.

The city alone couldn't afford such a project, and Republican county Commissioners Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer were staunch opponents, so the idea was hatched to ask voters in 11 counties if they would raise their sales tax burden to build a new ballpark, football stadium and an enlarged convention center. Despite the most expensive local campaign in history, and even though Cranmer broke ranks to ally himself with Murphy and Democratic county Commissioner Mike Dawida, the referendum bombed.

To this day, you can hear people saying they thought they had said 'no.' But a backdoor strategy -- a generic Plan B -- had been readied before the 1997 referendum. The key was tapping into the existing 1 percent sales tax surcharge in Allegheny County without having to ask the voters.

But even that took some tinkering with the Regional Assets District board that controlled the surcharge revenue. Plan B was one vote short of passage until Cranmer replaced an appointee who opposed the idea. The local share for the project -- $143 million -- was approved by the bare minimum majority in July 1998.

The Pirates' share, $44 million, came in part from the sale of the stadium's naming rights to PNC Bank, which paid $30 million for 20 years. The announcement that the new park would be named after a bank was booed at a Pirates game; some suggested it ought to be named Jammed Down The Taxpayers Throat Park.

All that remained was the $75 million state share, which had been pledged by Gov. Tom Ridge. It wasn't approved when expected -- on the last day of the 1998 legislative session, with a Pirates deadline hanging in the balance.

With the ballpark project shut down and the possibility that McClatchy might sell the team to someone who would move it out of town, Ridge and his staff worked out a new deal -- a grant to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to build four stadiums, with the teams to reimburse the state if a certain amount of new tax revenue failed to be generated within 10 years.

The legislators who voted for the grant came to the same conclusion Murphy had years earlier: They hated paying for it, but they didn't want to be blamed for the Pirates leaving Pittsburgh.

Now all that had to be done was for a joint venture of Dick Corp. and Barton/Malow to build a ballpark in 24 months. No other city had been able to complete a stadium in under 27 months.

Fast-track construction methods overcame its share of obstacles: court challenges to the bid procedures, challenges to the method of setting aside portions of the contracts to firms owned by blacks and women, delays in steel delivery that nearly shut down construction last August. As little as a few months ago, some Nervous Nellies came out with reports that the ballpark wouldn't be done on time.

Animated PNC Park features

Hit one into the river, check the starting lineup, get the story behind the new high-tech scoreboard or watch PNC Park rise from its construction site. Click to our lineup of interactive features about Pittsburgh's new ball park, only on post-gazette.com.


But the 23 labor unions who built it, and lobbied in Harrisburg for funding, stepped up by signing a project labor agreement that guaranteed no strikes as long as the work was covered by union rules. PNC Park was built without serious injury to workers, which included everything from scuba divers working on the river wall to ironworkers installing the highest beams.

The ballpark is made up of standard construction materials like stone, glass, concrete and thousands of erector set-type steel pieces and bolts surrounding a carpet of living, breathing grass. It sprang to life from plans drawn throughout the world and fed into fabricating computers. At times, it was a 24-hour day operation.

"It's a Pittsburgh story. We find a way," said Stephen Leeper, executive director of the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which oversees the stadiums and the convention center.

The process helped doom the political careers of Dawida and Cranmer, and Murphy's neck is on the line in the May primary. But at the official ribbon-cutting, he will beam that the ballpark was worthwhile and hope some of the rancor that accompanied its birth will be forgotten.

If the ballpark is a hit and the Pirates succeed and baseball gets its house in order, the complainers will be silenced. If it isn't voters likely will forget everything but their grudges.

Nobody gives much thought to how a diamond was formed as long as it gleams forever. The debut is just the beginning, not the end.

Next: The new jewel on the Allegheny

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