During two days of hearings held April 18 and 19 to help award Pittsburgh its lone slots license, two words were spoken more than any others, and they weren't best and proposal. They were Penguins and arena.
Comb through every page of the legislation that legalized slots, and you'll never find either of those two words. But the idea of a new hockey venue hijacked the local public hearings, held by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to help board members choose a casino developer from three applicants. The arena has been gambling topic No. 1 since Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. partnered with the Penguins and pledged funding for a $290 million arena ... if the company wins the three-way license battle. The move spurred Gov. Ed Rendell to develop a Plan B scenario: If Isle of Capri loses its bid, the plan asks the winner to cough up $7.5 million a year for 30 years toward new arena construction.
The other two casino companies have gotten on board Plan B ... one fully and one conditionally. Detroit businessman Don Barden of casino company PITG Gaming LLC pledged his unequivocal support to a $350 million revitalization of the Hill District (matching Isle of Capri's renovation pledge) and the annual $7.5 million arena commitment. The other hopeful team ... Forest City and Harrah's Entertainment ... agreed to ante up for a new arena only if the Penguins commit to stay in the city regardless of who wins the slots license.
County Executive Dan Onorato and Mayor Bob O'Connor both tried to change the subject at the hearings by announcing that the arena was a done deal.
"Today I am declaring victory in efforts to build a new multi-purpose facility here in Pittsburgh," Onorato said. "Now that the arena has been settled, you, the gaming board, can ... identify the proposal that will maximize property-tax reduction, create minimum-wage jobs and add to the economic revitalization of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County."
Added O'Connor: "Now that we have solved the Penguin issue with our arena-funding plan, we must make sure the Penguins and the gaming applicants contribute their fair share."
But the Penguins weren't mollified. "We don't know if Plan B is a viable plan," said Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer. "But what we do know is that the Isle of Capri plan is viable, fully funded, tax-free and we will commit to be in Pittsburgh with that plan. I'm so perplexed why people aren't rushing to endorse the Isle of Capri."
Perhaps it's because there is still some belief that the best casino proposal doesn't have to hinge on a new arena, but on local revenue-generating capability and ideal site use.
State Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Hill District) has not backed a particular plan. But at the hearings he urged the gaming control board to select a company that will provide a broad economic benefit to the entire community, run their business as a good neighbor and use diversity in hiring ... all selection criteria recommended by the state law.
"We heard three wonderful proposals for the city of Pittsburgh license," Wheatley said. "What should separate them will be who has the greatest commitment to inclusion and making sure all citizens benefit from the award of this license."