For Hill Residents, Requests from Casino Developers May Be Too Much, Too Late | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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For Hill Residents, Requests from Casino Developers May Be Too Much, Too Late

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At a Nov. 15 community meeting, PITG Gaming spokesman Mike Walker showed an artist's rendering of a pleasant, tree-lined bridge crossing Interstate 579 and connecting the lower Hill with Downtown. But while PITG, one of the companies vying to operate a casino in Pittsburgh, sketched out a plan for fountains and mixed-use development inspired by European landmarks, the audience grew skeptical.

"We've been walking down Centre Avenue for years -- we know how to get Downtown," responded Hill District resident Mel Watts, echoing concerns of other residents, more than 100 of whom attended the gathering. "You're going to build this and the white folks are going to enjoy it. You need to show us a view beyond Centre Avenue."

It's little wonder residents have a hard time seeing developers' rosy visions for the future. For 40 years since the Civic (now Mellon) Arena clear-cut the Lower Hill based on promises of urban renewal, the Middle and Upper Hill have continued to decay. Now some in the Hill worry that history could repeat itself. Plans to redevelop the area around the arena, they worry, will leave the rest of the Hill District to waste away. And they may once again be left in the dark.

The Hill District Gaming Task Force, which had called the Nov. 15 meeting, had hoped to ease such fears. The group was convened by several local groups to negotiate with potential casino operators on the neighborhood's behalf. But it didn't inspire confidence when two of the companies vying for the single license to operate a slots parlor in Pittsburgh -- Isle of Capri and Harrah's -- failed to attend the meeting.

Harrah's, which hopes to open its slots parlor at Station Square, has not offered money to the Hill specifically, though it has pledged $25 million to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. That money, the casino said, should bankroll neighborhood revitalization city-wide.

Isle of Capri's proposal would put a casino and new hockey arena directly on the Lower Hill near the current Mellon Arena site. The company also pledges about $300 million in development around its site, as well as a $1 million annual contribution to a Hill community redevelopment fund. In a letter sent to the Hill District Gaming Task Force, Isle of Capri's local representative noted that the company had participated in numerous public gatherings already: "[W]e feel at this late stage in the process we have already disclosed our plan and respectfully decline your invitation," the letter asserted.

PITG, owned by Detroit-based casino operator Don Barden, sent a handful of representatives to the meeting. The company hopes to build its casino on Pittsburgh's North Side, but pledges to spend $350 million revitalizing the Hill with commercial and residential development, a community garden and underground parking.

Even so, residents had similar doubts about the Isle of Capri proposal and that of PITG. Both redevelopment plans seem to stop at the intersection of Centre Avenue and Crawford -- which for many residents is where the Hill District starts. And when community members pressed for details on PITG's financial commitments, task force member Richard Taylor said that the group wouldn't release precise figures.

Disclosing such details wasn't in the neighborhood's best interest, he told the crowd. "It's like developing film in a darkroom: If you expose it to light too soon, you risk ruining the picture."

"We know you've seen them, but we need to see" as well, one audience member complained.

While the lack of light may make residents feel left out of redevelopment plans, there's another danger too: The Hill may be asking for too much too late.

In April, another consortium of neighborhood organizations, the Hill District Consensus Group, put forth its "10 percent proposal," requesting that the Hill District get a sum of money equal to 10 percent of the amount spent on a new arena for the Penguins. If Isle of Capri is chosen by the state to receive Pittsburgh's sole slots license, for instance, the Consensus Group wants the company to pay $29 million to a Hill development fund, based on the $290 million the company has pledged for the arena.

None of the three slots hopefuls has committed to contribute 10 percent of anything.

As late as Nov. 10, at the Consensus Group's monthly meeting, members were still asking whether the group had any power to enforce the 10 percent request -- or whether it was a sensible figure at all.

"We do have to figure out how we get more clout in this process, because we don't have it," said Carl Redwood, Consensus Group chairman. "Sometimes that's got to mean we stop them doing what they want to do until they go through this process" of working with the Consensus Group.

"I think we're headed toward an impasse," Redwood said. "We need to think up a mechanism that's going to hold them accountable. We have to pick a fighting point."

The point at which a fight might be effective may have passed. The period for the public to submit written comments about the casino applications expired in June. The state gaming board is hearing final testimony from the applicants as this issue goes to press; the board is slated to make a final decision on Dec. 20.

But at the Nov. 15 meeting, state Rep. Jake Wheatley told his Hill District constituents that they would still have negotiating power even after the license is awarded. No matter who wins, he pointed out, there will be numerous public hearings as part of the construction process.

"You have the power right now to still make a difference, but you have to speak out," Wheatley told the crowd. "We cannot continue to believe that what happened in the past will happen again. If you speak out, we can influence what happens here."

Kim Ellis, for one, hopes that the casino comes anywhere but the Hill.

"I have one singular focus," she shouted at the Task Force meeting. "It's to prevent [Isle of Capri] from putting a casino at the bottom of our neighborhood."

Her views had received some support earlier in the day, at a University of Pittsburgh lecture by Robert Goodman, an addiction researcher, professor and author of The Luck Business. His book, a study of the social and economic impact of gambling laws, stemmed from his work directing a two-year countrywide gambling study for the Ford Foundation and Aspen Institute.

"[G]overnment has moved from a regulator of activities like gambling to the chief promoter of it," Goodman said. "When the mafia ran gambling, you never saw full-page ads in the newspapers and ads on television, but that's what we have now."

Goodman projected that about 3 percent of Pennsylvania residents could be expected to develop gambling problems -- although he reported that Louisiana, for instance, has seen more than twice that rate of addiction.

His studies predict that 25 to 50 percent of Pennsylvania's revenues will come from problem gamblers, he added.

When one audience member told Goodman about plans for a possible casino in the Hill, his response came without hesitation.

"I can't think of a worse place to put a gambling facility," he said.

On. Nov. 20, a coalition of Hill ministers, led by Rev. Dr. Johnnie Monroe of Grace Presbyterian, announced its own opposition to a Hill casino. As optimistic as Kim Ellis is about her efforts, however, she is aware of the short time left for her to make any difference. She brought petitions protesting a Hill District casino with her to Harrisburg this week, as the three gaming companies made their final pitch to the state's gaming board.

And while some at the Nov. 15 despaired of the long odds facing her efforts, Ellis is unbowed. "[A]ll I can say," she told the audience, "is how dare you give up hope."

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