Groups unite to demand arena benefits
Alliance will push for investment, jobs for Hill District
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
By Rich Lord, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An alliance of unions, community groups and housing and political organizations is lining up behind the concept of wringing benefits for the Hill District from the new arena and casino, and hoping to change the way development is done across Pittsburgh.
The new umbrella group, Pittsburgh UNITED, includes 15 organizations and plans to add more. It met with Hill District activists on Friday and aims to add organizational muscle to a push to ensure that the neighborhood benefits from the replacement for Mellon Arena and nearby development.
"Developers that are getting public money, and are coming into Pittsburgh, ought to answer to the communities they're coming into," said Sam Williamson, Western District director for UNITEHERE, a union of hotel and restaurant workers and a member of Pittsburgh UNITED.
The alliance's name stands for Unions and Neighborhoods Investing in Transforming Economic Development, and its formation began late last year.
"We were really frustrated about public investment not benefiting the public," said alliance co-chair Ronell Guy of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, one of the member groups.
The Hill seemed a good place to start. It may soon see not just a new arena, but a $350 million development possibly involving Don Barden, who is building a casino on the North Shore.
At an April 5 meeting, around 20 Hill residents, business persons and clergy met with officials, including Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato. They presented a "terms sheet" saying that Hill groups should get $10 million in development funding, a share of arena revenue and a guarantee that 30 percent of jobs will go to minorities.
Pittsburgh UNITED isn't endorsing those terms yet, said Carl Redwood, convener of the Hill District Consensus Group, which has joined the alliance but didn't help draft the sheet.
"We're basically going through the process of defining the community benefits, what the community wants," Mr. Redwood said. His organization includes 70 Hill groups, and each of them "might want different things" from the arena development.
Marimba Milliones, one of the Hill residents who presented the terms sheet, said she was happy to have the larger group involved in the process.
"We welcome any partnership that advances the Hill District and its residents and look forward to this potential relationship," she said.
The alliance will eventually get behind a set of "planks," said Tom Hoffman, programs director at Service Employees International Union Local 3, another member group. The group will seek a contract guaranteeing "concrete, measurable improvements in people's lives" as part of the arena package.
Such contracts, called community benefits agreements, have been used in other cities since 2000 but not yet here.
In Los Angeles, an agreement related to development around Staples Center gives people displaced by the project first shot at employment and guarantees that 70 percent of jobs created will be unionized or pay a family-supporting wage. It plows nearly $2 million into parks, affordable homes and training.
In the New York City Borough of Brooklyn, a similar pact related to the Atlantic Yards development stipulates the percentages of construction jobs and contracts that must go to minorities and women. It calls for affordable housing and neighborhood amenities as part of the mix, and guarantees tickets for neighborhood residents at arena events.
Mr. Hoffman said other community benefits agreements have included planks that forgive health care-related debts for neighbors of a hospital expansion, unionize school painting jobs and give students first crack at them, among other things.
Several developers said they believe in getting community input into their projects but didn't know enough about the new alliance to comment.
Mr. Ravenstahl said last week that he'd heard from the involved unions. "I think that's fair for them to have a seat at the table," he said.
The Penguins have said they will meet with Hill residents and consider their concerns, and Mr. Onorato said he's trying to schedule a meeting for next week. It's not yet clear whether alliance leaders will be at that meeting.
The alliance has funding from the Ford Foundation, matched by local foundation funds, to help it win its first community benefits agreement. In addition to the Hill, it's eyeing the neighborhood around Mr. Barden's proposed casino on the North Shore.
"We on the North Side want the development to benefit historically disenfranchised people," said Ms. Guy, a co-founder of the North Side Coalition for Fair Housing. "We're hoping to develop a community coalition on the North Side, as well as anywhere there is huge development that's going to impact the community."
Mr. Barden's spokesman said it was "premature and speculative" to talk about a benefits agreement with the group, which hasn't yet contacted the casino firm.
In the past, unions, neighborhood groups and environmental organizations have tried to influence local development, singly or in small groups. Pittsburgh UNITED plans to bring their collective power to bear on every big, publicly financed project.
Other members include the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the Sierra Club, the League of Young Voters, and the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee.
The diversity of the alliance won't make it unwieldy, Mr. Hoffman said, but instead will allow it to bring influence to bear from many angles and negotiate wide-ranging deals with developers.
"We don't settle," he said, "until we all settle."