Sales tax referendum splits Pittsburgh-area voters Revenue would build two sports stadiums

September 21, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PITTSBURGH -- This is no ordinary mining machine and no ordinary building where scientists are tinkering with it.

The 25-foot-long machine, which can churn loose several tons of soft coal a day, is being rigged with a computer system so a single operator can drive it from above ground rather than a team of workers down below.

The building housing the machine, once a pipe and valve plant, was vacant for decades before the city bought it in 1994. Now renovated and leased to Carnegie Mellon University, it serves scientists developing robotic systems to operate vehicles and machinery.

"We can make any machine intelligent, from a car to a lawn mower," said R. Craig Coulter, a project scientist. He predicted that robotic systems will generate annual sales of $40 billion within five years for the growing number of companies developing them.

Welcome to Pittsburgh as the 21st century approaches.

Long past its prime as the nation's leading steel producer, Pittsburgh is blooming all along the three rivers that converge at its heart. Technology, health services and banking have become the anchors of a diversifying economy.

Crime rates and real estate costs are among the lowest of any big city in the country, and the vacant lots and hulking shells of long-abandoned steel mills are being turned into parks, residential developments, manufacturing plants and technology centers.

Yet for all the progress of the post-industrial years, Pittsburgh is at a crossroads. The city and the surrounding counties face a referendum on financing several major projects, which officials say could determine whether the city continues its path of improvement.

Despite the recent growth of high-technology concerns and small businesses, the city's population has fallen to 360,000, down from its peak of 676,000 in 1950. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh and 129 smaller municipalities, dropped to 1.33 million in 1990 from 1.45 million in 1980.

In November, voters in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and nine surrounding counties will have a chance to say yes or no to a

new sales tax to finance development.

Business and civic leaders say the choice could determine whether the city leaps or limps into the 21st century, while others warn that the tax would drive out still more residents while primarily benefiting the city's sports teams.

The referendum, known as the Regional Renaissance Initiative, proposes a half-cent sales tax increase that could generate as much as $700 million by the time it ends in seven years.

Most of the money would be used in Pittsburgh for two downtown stadiums for the city's professional baseball and football teams, the Pirates and the Steelers, a major expansion of the convention center and completion of the Cultural District of theaters and galleries.

Counties in which voters approve the measure would receive money for their own economic development projects. But only those in which the measure passed would share the revenue.

Economists here predict that the tax would cost each working family member $35 to $45 a year and lead to $1 billion or more in new private investment throughout the region, if all 10 counties approved the measure.

But that appears unlikely. Public sentiment is running strongly against the measure, even in Allegheny County, even though the Pirates, a beloved team with a rich history of success, are threatening to leave Pittsburgh by 2001 if a new baseball stadium is not built. Since 1971, both of the city's professional teams have played in Three Rivers Stadium.

"This is critical," said Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, a supporter of the initiative and a Democrat who is expected to breeze to re-election in November.

"This would put us in a position to compete with many other cities. Tangibly, it could lead to several billion dollars of investment commitments. Intangibly, it takes Pittsburgh to another level of how we think about ourselves."

A $3 million advertising campaign to sell the referendum is aimed principally at voters who oppose a tax increase and those who say the measure would benefit only Pittsburgh, wealthy team owners and high-salaried athletes.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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