TOWN SQUARE

Allentown hockey arena soap opera: Don't jump off the Titanic

For normal people, the important thing here is hockey, not the revitalization of a downtown area going downhill, nor razzle-dazzle financial schemes in which only two things seem certain: Ultimately, the politically connected will do just fine while it will be the taxpayers who get it in the neck.

Oddballs who do not care about hockey, meanwhile, are enthralled by the Neighborhood Improvement Zone soap opera, set in Allentown with a cast of characters that only the old "Carol Burnett Show" could do justice.

In the latest installment of "As the Stomach Turns," the hopes of city hall's winsome denizens were dashed, for the moment, by (who else?) some lawyers, who (we need a long dramatic Chicago pause here) … delivered the shocking message that a new save-the-day NIZ proposal was being rejected.

In a nutshell, the NIZ plan, which includes a new American Hockey League stadium, depends on all sorts of taxing intrigues that some municipalities other than Allentown feel are designed to stab them and their residents in the back.

Two townships, Hanover and Bethlehem, filed a lawsuit against the $220 million plan, which was facilitated by a 2009 state law engineered by state Sen. Pat Browne. More than a dozen other municipalities have joined the lawsuit.

It seems the plan's financing depends in large part on grabbing all sorts of tax revenue that normally would come from downtown businesses and from various workers who pay earned income taxes, which previously benefited municipalities other than Allentown.

That, and a claim that Browne's measure blatantly violates the Pennsylvania Constitution, motivated the lawsuit, which threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the gears of the NIZ juggernaut. (The NIZ is the result of plans formulated out of public view, with two supporters of Mayor Ed Pawlowski, Sy Traub and J.B. Reilly, emerging as the leading figures in the soap opera.)

A deal was offered — to return EIT collections to the townships and to find other ploys to pay them off — but that offer was rejected this week by their lawyers.

If the lawsuit cannot be made to go away, the NIZ would surely be delayed, and that would mean the new hockey arena could not be ready for the start of the 2013-14 AHL season, as projected by the wheeler-dealers behind the entire NIZ plan.

Nevertheless, the NIZ grabbed much of the downtown's private property through eminent domain bludgeoning, and already has begun the new construction, on the site of a previous episode of "As the Stomach Turns." The Corporate Plaza office building collapsed in the 1990s because it was built on the shifting sands of subterranean limestone formations. (Don't worry, say the wheeler-dealers, we fixed the problem.)

As we await the next plot twist concocted from the Machiavellian whims of lawyers, let us now turn off the organ music and return to the real world and the concerns of real people, who went into a deep funk this week because of what the New Jersey Devils did to the Philadelphia Flyers in the National Hockey League playoffs.

The only bright spot has been the performance of a half-dozen rookies the Flyers called up from their AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms, the very team that would move to Allentown if only a stadium gets built.

As I said in previous columns, it is a disgrace that a strong hockey market like the Lehigh Valley does not have an AHL team, when Podunks like Wilkes-Barre, Hershey and Glens Falls, N.Y. (the current home of the Phantoms) do. I also said that downtown Allentown is the worst place in the Lehigh Valley to put a hockey arena, because of parking problems, traffic problems, crime problems, demographics, etc.

Mayor Pawlowski, however, said in a column published Sunday that the chief reason to build the NIZ and its hockey arena was "a chance to reinvigorate our largest urban core."

Colleague Bill White, on Thursday, echoed that sentiment, calling some opponents of the NIZ "misguided" and saying that if the tax flap can be sorted out, "what serious negatives are we left with?"

Those are noble sentiments and I hope there is progress in this crusade to uplift the unfortunate. But the fundamental problem with the hockey arena is that it has never been about hockey. It has been all about money and trying to gain political points.

A plan by a previous city hall was worse. Then-Mayor William Heydt wanted a downtown arena to host a team from the grotesquely inferior United Hockey League. That plan, thank heavens, flopped.

All that aside, I hope the new arena succeeds. The prospect of an AHL arena, even in the wrong place and concocted for sinister reasons, is a ray of sunshine for the fans of genuine athletic competition (as opposed to baseball). With all the misgivings we normal people have about the NIZ, an AHL game in downtown Allentown is better than no AHL game at all.

So we shall stay tuned to the soap opera, hoping that everything turns out all right in the end, if there ever is an end.

Even if Pawlowski's arena is doomed to failure, jumping off the crusade for it, at this stage, would be like jumping off the Titanic before it hit the iceberg.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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