Bill Toland over at the PG did a fair job on Sunday of painting the political landscape on the Hill in securing a benefits agreement regarding casinarena issues. I've been following this issue (Pt.1 and Pt.2) and find that his title, "Old quarrel shapes new battle over Hill District" really should be Old Quarrel, Old Battle. I argue this because there is always a battle over who represents a 'community', this is not particular to the Hill District, and because residents in the Hill were not passive when the Civic Arena was originally built. I reprint the entire article below with comments and interpretations based on attending the original community forum at Weil Elementary last month and some previous articles. Apologies in advance for the format - just had to get these thoughts down. And last night, 230 concerned citizens came to the arena to voice "their concerns, frustrations, and thoughts about the proposed $290 million arena and its impact".
In August Wilson's Hill District, where political memories are long and family loyalties run deep, late city councilman Jake Milliones still has disciples, 14 years beyond his death. And those disciples, harnessed by ousted city councilman Sala Udin, have their antagonists, given voice by current city Councilwoman Tonya Payne.
It was Ms. Payne who defeated Mr. Udin in the 2005 primary, eventually winning the right to represent the Hill and city council's District 6, and it was Mr. Udin who fired Ms. Payne from his council staff 10 years ago.
And it's this split -- the Payne class pitted against the Udin guard -- that is shaping the latest tug-of-war over the soul of the Hill. The winners will be able to make the claim, for the moment, that they are the authentic voice of the community, and will be better able to control the jobs, contracts and tens of millions of dollars in future investment at stake as the Pittsburgh Penguins prepare to build an arena in the Lower Hill.
This seems to be a fabricated interpretation of what is happening in the Hill right now. The “One Hill” group, the likes of Monroe/Wheatley/Milliones/Udin is aiming to unify the Hill in one voice. I have seen my past suspicions modified regarding how it would benefit Onorendellburklestahl, Inc. if the Hill was divided and could be conquered. Jake Wheatley, in solidarity with ALL Hill District stakeholders, said that the Hill should work to come up with a unified voice – especially among public officials. There is not this explicit drive to badmouth one another from the “One Hill” side. From hypocritical Tonya Payne’s perspective, Mr. Toland has a point because she seems to be fomenting a power struggle.
Also at stake are the development rights themselves -- will the Pens develop the 28 acres around the new arena exclusively, or will the team cede some of it to Majestic Star gaming head Don Barden and his allies? In the back of everyone's mind is the specter of the old Civic Arena and the sense that if they don't get it right this time, there may not be another chance.
"It's all about power," said DeWitt Walton, head of the Crawford Square Homeowners Association and an observer of the Hill's politics and power plays. He was an early supporter of the Isle of Capri, the St. Louis company that partnered with the Penguins and hoped to build a casino next to the new arena. "Power translates into dollars."
And the Hill wants dollars. Marimba Milliones, daughter of Jake Milliones, wants to collapse the Community Development Corporation that she heads into a nascent umbrella group, the Greater Hill District Development League, which would direct investment money in the Hill. Ms. Payne, part of the Hill's next generation of leaders, wants to be the funnel through which cash flows into her district. Carl Redwood wants his Hill Consensus Group to be a primary arbiter of development in the neighborhood.
Who would you trust? Payne, who collaborated with Robinson lobby for the Isle of Capri that your constituents clearly rejected, who collaborated with Robinson’s friend Rev. James Simms who was paid by the casino to appear as some independent Hill District advocate with the “Pittsburgh First” organization fronting as a community group? Or, Marimba who worked with the CDC, along with its board members for the past year or so without payment to ensure fair development practices in the Hill; who worked hard to secure the Bedford Dwellings , which has been a great success in terms of participatory community development; or Jake Wheatley who told the PA House that an independent community survey found that 65% of the Hill District opposed the Isle of Capri plan “unlike the privately funded survey done by a signature-gathering company which was paid for by the Isle of Capri/Pittsburgh First organization.” ; who also suggested that the Gaming Commission should visit the Hill residents and hear for themselves what the community’s perspectives are. Or Sala Udin, who spent 4 years of his life as a Freedom Rider in the 60’s taking beatings again and again down south for the civil rights struggle, who established a drug treatment center and addressed AIDS injustices early on in the bay area, and developed a multicultural training resource center before PCness.
Deciphering the political alliances in the Hill is like playing a game of connect-the-dots -- it takes a few minutes, but eventually, a picture emerges. Mr. Udin was the quiet nexus of the group that ended up fighting to derail the proposed Isle of Capri casino. Mr. Udin was Jake Millione's chief of staff; later Mr. Udin hired Jake Wheatley, now a state representative, to work for him during his city council tenure. (Mr. Wheatley, for a time, was engaged to Ms. Milliones.)
Entertainer-activist Kimberly Ellis (or you could call her Kimberly Ellis, PhD head of the Hill District’s Historic Hill Initiative, doing good work to maintain the history of the Hill, and also this), the self-proclaimed "Dr. Goddess" who helped whip up opposition to the Isle of Capri, is the niece of the late playwright August Wilson -- one of Mr. Udin's best friends.
Meanwhile, Mr. Udin's relationship with ministers in the Hill, including the Rev. Johnnie Monroe, pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, is more of the old-fashioned back-scratching variety -- he helped them during his years on city council, and now many of those Hill ministers continue to be faithful to him. (A coalition of ministers supportive of Mr. Udin and distrustful of gambling on a moral level, called Raise Your Hand, was one of the Hill's chief anti-casino mobilization forces.)
"There's a connection everywhere," said Perline Coleman, who has spent decades in her Sweeney Way home above Wylie Avenue, is the secretary for the Hill's Third Ward. She falls into the Payne camp and the Hill Consensus Group, which has emerged as a counterweight to the influence wielded by Udin subordinates.
She has been supported by the city's Democratic establishment (wow, lots of faith in her once you mention she is supported by the city’s junta), winning the endorsement of the party committee in 2005 over Mr. Udin. That solidified her alignment with County Councilman Bill Robinson, the same Bill Robinson who once served in the state House of Representatives -- until he was defeated by a young man named Jake Wheatley.
Mr. Robinson and Mr. Udin, it's fair to say, are political archrivals. Mr. Robinson, meanwhile, has been a political and personal friend to the Rev. James Simms over the years -- it was Mr. Simms who was a paid consultant for Isle of Capri's public face, called Pittsburgh First, which tried to organize community support for the Lower Hill casino.
Ms. Payne and company, who were front-and-center in lobbying for Isle of Capri, were delivered a setback Dec. 20 when Isle of Capri lost its bid for the Pittsburgh casino license in favor of Mr. Barden's PITG Gaming and Majestic Star operation, which plans to put its casino on the North Shore. But she's tried to rebound and is horning in on what Mr. Wheatley, Mr. Udin and Ms. Milliones view as their rightful winnings -- to the victors go the spoils.
And in fighting off Isle of Capri, and aligning themselves by default with Don Barden, they view themselves as the victors.
But the road to victory is littered with casualties, and at times these skirmishes have been nasty, as is often the case when politics bleeds into public theater. Ms. Payne said Mr. Wheatley and Ms. Milliones' tactics reeked of "extortion." Mr. Wheatley said "Tonya Payne and Bill Robinson should be embarrassed" after they struck a side deal with Isle of Capri to create the Hill Entertainment Services District, which was supposed to pay for public services and other neighborhood improvements.
Mr. Udin, who has publicly stayed above the fray, said he's disappointed by the sniping in the media, but otherwise had no comment. Ms. Milliones wouldn't talk for this story, either.
Mr. Wheatley, on the other hand, said the divisions, while long-standing, are natural over such high-stakes issues.
"Ever since I've been in Pittsburgh, I've heard about the division in the Hill District like it's unique," Mr. Wheatley said last week. "Sometimes, we're going to be working together, and sometimes we're going to be working against each other."
That's politics, he said. And when politics mixes with business -- which is nearly always -- those divisions emerge.
Some of those divisions, said several people who were interviewed for this story, are being stoked by the Penguins, who seem to prefer dealing with Ms. Payne's group, largely because of its early support of Isle of Capri, and partly because the Penguins think that Mr. Wheatley and Ms. Milliones overreached when they tried to negotiate their first agreement with the Penguins -- they wanted $10 million for the Hill annually, plus a portion of parking proceeds and 25 cents from every hot dog sold.
"Don't get out in front of the community," Ms. Payne said. "It didn't make much sense to me to come up with a list of demands" without consulting others in the Hill first, she said. "They're all connected that way. They work together. And that's fine, as long as it's not going to be harmful to anybody ... I just don't want you to make decisions for everyone."
By that last statement, Ms. Payne, do you mean exactly what you and Robinson did? Get funding to lobby for a casino corporation, have a 'reverend' front as a community activist to try to garner support from residents, and then secure for your and Robinson's political benefit a side deal with the corporation to create the Hill Entertainment Services District without consulting the needs and wishes of the community? Let me restate your comment, "I just don't want YOU to make decisions for everyone".
The alternate view in the Hill is that Mr. Wheatley, Ms. Milliones and company got "out in front" because they didn't want the Hill's viewpoint to be steamrolled in the process, as was the case when Mellon Arena was built. Ms. Milliones, in the past, has said she and her allies represent the "indigenous leadership" on the Hill. "I think from their perspective at the time [nobody] was speaking," said Elbert Hatley, former director of the Hill CDC, now known affectionately as the "mayor" of the Hill District.
"There was some urgency in getting an audience with the appropriate policy-makers and stakeholders," he said.
Mr. Redwood, head of Hill Consensus, said there's a difference between urgency and legitimacy.
"They went Downtown first and talked to folks," Mr. Redwood said. "That's all it takes for Downtown to appoint leaders."
One city business leader, who likened the fractured Hill District to the Balkans, said cooperation is the key to the neighborhood's salvation. Otherwise, they'll continue to blow through millions without the resurrection they've long been pining for. "There have been other places where money has been spent," he said, pointing to the North Side neighborhoods, "with much better results."
That bothers stakeholders in the Hill, such as the Hill House Association, a community services group. And that's why it's so important to get it right this time -- and why so many people want to flex their muscles, said Evan Frazier, Hill House president.
"I don't think it's unlike any other neighborhood. ... Everybody sees the opportunity and the challenge. People are just coming at it from different angles."
Despite continued behind-the-scenes sniping, there have been outward signs that the factions might be able to patch up their differences, or at least suspend them, for the good of the Hill. A late April meeting between the Penguins and the Hill's community and religious leaders, where the parties discussed a "community benefits agreement" for the Hill, went well. Ms. Payne characterized it as a "team-building" effort. The Rev. Monroe and Mr. Wheatley said they were encouraged by the session.
But it's hard to know how much of that was political grandstanding. One person who attended the meeting said the two factions didn't get along, with Ms. Payne questioning who the Hill's true leaders were -- her alliance or Wheatley-Milliones-Udin.
Again, Ms. Payne foments a division among stakeholders. At the first community forum, Wheatley encourage all parties, including Ferlo and Payne, who represent parts of the Hill to not publicly appear divided on this issue. But, since Payne was not personally there, maybe her representative forgot to pass along this central piece of information from the forum. Better yet, she could have attended such an important Hill-wide meeting.
Mr. Wheatley, striking a diplomatic tone, said he hopes to get past the age-old battles. "There's always some tension when you have energetic leadership around the table," he said. "At the end of the day, none of us hold ultimate authority in the Hill District."
That sort of talk was echoed across the board -- consensus, however it is achieved, is preferable to the alternative, said Mr. Walton, the Crawford Square homeowners' leader.
"These people are my friends. These people are my neighbors. Reasonable people can disagree without being disagreeable."
What will be interesting is to see who will represent the Hill in this very important case. You can bet your butt Skip will be using the fish finder to keep this one on the radar.