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Lots from Slots?

Hill residents are organizing to face off against the Penguins arena and casino deal

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While Hill District residents can't even buy a loaf of bread in their neighborhood, they may soon be able to drop a lot of bread in a nearby casino.

 

Three casino developers are hoping that by early next year, the state's Gaming Control Board will grant them the sole license to run a slots parlor in Pittsburgh. Local leaders, some representing the Hill, are already backing the proposal by Isle of Capri; if its bid succeeds, the company has pledged to replace Mellon Arena with a new arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and to invest heavily in the surrounding community. But concerned Hill residents, meeting for the first time with Capri and Pens representatives on Feb. 10, have just begun to organize.

 

Hill District resident Richard LeGrande, a member of the Hill District Consensus Group that hosted the meeting, says he has seen the dough flow in the wrong direction too many times.

 

"I have been to most of the big casinos in the world, including Monte Carlo," LeGrande said. "And the one thing I have always seen is broken people. We have to be ready to treat this toxin and make sure there is remediation." Civic leaders, he says, must "make the best deal possible to make sure we can take care of the broken families that come out of this."

 

Besides a $290 million arena near the casino, Mississippi-based Isle of Capri has pledged to build $400 million in residential and commercial development in the lower Hill. The company has also promised at least $1 million annually for community programs.

 

The other two casino plans would put a slots parlor in Station Square (to be built by Harrah's Entertainment) or the North Side near the Carnegie Science Center (proposed by Detroit businessman Don Barden). Neither proposal allocates money for a new arena.

As Isle of Capri and the Penguins press the economic benefits of their plan, there has been little discussion about whether putting 3,000 slot machines in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods is a good idea.

The plan is being shopped to neighborhood groups by the Rev. James Simms, a former County Council member who represented the Hill, and the Pittsburgh First collaborative. The collaborative includes the Penguins, Isle of Capri and Nationwide Development, which would oversee development around the new arena and casino.

Simms says he isn't asking the Hill's consensus group to support the plan yet. And judging from reaction of several dozen Hill residents at the Feb. 10 meeting, that may be just as well.

"You're talking about this money given to the community by the casino," resident C. Renee Wilson said at the gathering, held in the Hill House on Centre Avenue. "What I want to know is, how much of that money will be used to take care of the children whose parents decide to take the rent money and go to the casino? ... We need to think about what we're doing to our children's future before we even consider putting a casino in today."

 

Mayor Bob O'Connor, County Executive Dan Onorato and state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who represents the Hill, have not been quick to jump on the Zamboni with the Penguins yet either.

Wheatley says there hasn't been enough study to see which site makes the most sense socially, let alone economically, though he would love to see the Pens stay in Pittsburgh. He will hold several public meetings of his own prior to the April licensing hearings. During his meetings, Wheatley hopes to draft an outline of what the neighborhoods expect from a casino proposal.

 

"This can't just be about the lower Hill," Wheatley says. "I want to know what the economic benefits will be to the greater Hill, Uptown, Schenley Heights -- all of our neighborhoods. From my perspective, a lot of work needs to be done before we can endorse one plan over another."

Allegheny County Councilor Bill Robinson, who represents the Hill as well, has supported the Isle of Capri plan almost from the beginning. The deal, he says, will fulfill what he calls a "commitment" to build the Penguins a new arena. But he says he's concerned that the $1 million promised annually to the community is not enough. He would prefer 1 to 2 percent of the casino's gross profits.

"They need to put a million in a fund today and say, 'This is only the beginning,'" Robinson explains. "When you start dividing up a million, it's not a lot of money, but when you say 1 or 2 percent of the gross, now you're talking money that ... will make a difference in the community.

"In Atlantic City," he adds, "the Boardwalk and casino area grew and the promise was to revitalize the entire community. Anyone who has ever been there knows growth outside of Atlantic Avenue never happened. We can avoid those problems by handling it right now."

 

Simms, speaking for the plan's backers, has invited a Hill Consensus Group member to join a committee shaping the plan. City fathers decimated the lower Hill by building the Civic Arena 40 years ago, he explains. The casino plan is a chance to right that wrong.

 

"I heard someone say that it's very difficult to find community benefit from a casino, and that is absolutely correct," he told the Feb. 10 meeting. "If this was just a casino operation, I wouldn't be standing here. We have a chance to do it better here and smarter here than anyone has ever done it before." Developers, he said, "do not have a master plan to say what the 27 acres surrounding the arena will look like. We would love to have that area developed in conjunction with the aspirations, hopes and dreams of everyone in this community."

Les McMackin, senior vice president of marketing for Isle of Capri, says the company has experience building casinos in areas that need an economic boost. Capri's 15 casinos in southern and western states, he says, have had positive influences on the communities they serve. In Mississippi and the Gulf Coast, for example, Capri's casinos offer scholarships for students entering the hospitality industry. In Iowa, according to the Iowa Gaming Association, the company gave $4.62 million in charitable contributions. In Colorado, the group's annual United Way donation was a state record for casinos: $61,500.

 

"Gaming is a social activity, and most people spend on average $50 for an evening out," McMackin says. "In our experience, the people living near our casinos are severely income-challenged -- and those are not the people we are drawing from."

 

Dr. John Welte, a senior research scientist at the University of Buffalo's Research Institute on Addiction, would likely disagree. Welte, who received his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, knows both the city and gamblers. In a study conducted by the institute in 2000, Welte found that the rates of problem gambling among people who live within 10 miles of a casino are twice those of other gamblers. And non-whites living in poorer neighborhoods had higher rates of problem gambling than anyone else.

 

 "These factors, combined with the increased access to a casino, means that more people are likely to get into trouble," Welte contends.

 

Welte speculates that poorer people sometimes use gambling as a surrogate for investing, thinking of it more as an economic activity than entertainment.

 

"A lot of people ... in poorer neighborhoods don't see affluence achieved by conventional means, so they look at gambling -- from slot machines to the lottery -- as a way to achieve that affluence," Welte says.

 

Hill District residents and those who frequent the neighborhood have reason to doubt that well-meaning urban planners will come to their rescue. Lois M. Cain of Stanton Heights, a long-time member of the Hill's Central Baptist Church and a founder of the Consensus Group, says she remembers when Hill residents were asked to trust the developers of Crawford Square. Housing would be affordable, they were told -- but a few years later, they were priced out of the market. She expects the same thing to happen with the casino-related development.

Hill artist S.K. Woodall had come to the Hill District Consensus Group meeting to talk about his arts-education program. But there is "one thing we know around here," he said of the casino proposal: "It's that all good intentions fall to the money."

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