There's little you can promise African-American Pittsburgh residents that they haven't been promised a million times before. Neighborhood revitalization. Jobs stemming from new developments. That ever-elusive Hill District grocery store.
So as three casino companies lobby for the chance to build a slots parlor in the city, their promises to create jobs for local blacks, and to invest in their neighborhoods, have been met with caution, if not pessimism.
The winning proposal won't be determined until December, at the earliest. But the three rival companies have estimated the casinos will create between 1,000 and 3,500 permanent jobs, ranging from bartenders and maintenance workers to accountants and security personnel. And on paper, at least, the state gaming law requires that casinos have a diverse workforce. The state gaming control board, which will decide who gets the lone license to operate a slots parlor here, "is committed to enhancing the representation of diverse groups in the ownership, participation and operation" of casinos, says a board statement on diversity.
Still, the law doesn't mandate specific staffing levels, and this isn't the first time the promise train has pulled into this city, which is more than 27 percent African American. So how can residents be sure that the casinos will employ a diverse workforce here?
During the building of the two North Shore stadiums, Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, became involved in the struggle to secure construction contracts for black business owners. Both projects failed to deliver on job promises made to black residents, and Stevens believes multi-million-dollar companies can't be trusted without oversight.
"We have to make sure there are mechanisms in place to make sure the diversity we are all striving for is factual and not illusory, as it has been in the past," Stevens says. "You can't just say you're committed to diversity and expect us to believe it. You can't plant a commitment in sand; it has to be planted in soil. If you plant it in sand, we know what's going to happen. Sooner or later, it's going to fall over."
Sounding a similar note, Rev. James Simms told an Uptown gathering on Sept. 15, "Over the past 40 years, this community has been neglected." The meeting was convened by one of the casino hopefuls ... Isle of Capri ... to explain the future employment picture to job-placement specialists. The Isle of Capri casino would be placed in the Lower Hill, alongside a new $290 million hockey arena that is also part of its proposal.
"If we don't seize this opportunity, we'll be another 40 years trying to get something done," claimed Simms, a former county councilor hired to promote the Isle of Capri.
Isle of Capri's plan is being challenged by two others: a Station Square-based casino proposed by developer Forest City Enterprises and Harrah's Entertainment; as well as a North Shore casino called the Majestic Star owned by Don Barden and his PITG Gaming. But neither Harrah's nor PITG Gaming has done as much outreach as Isle of Capri. Its Sept. 15 meeting featured representatives from local job-placement agencies and companies. It also hired local diversity-consultant Gil Berry and Associates to make sure the casino has a diverse pool of applicants ... and to certify any minority- or women-owned contractors in the casino's construction phase.
Berry and colleague John Dunlap say they have decades of experience, and guarantee there won't be a repeat of what happened with the North Shore stadium construction. As for securing a diverse workforce, Dunlap says, "We need to start ... supplying some training now to get ready for this casino."
Les McMackin III, senior vice president of marketing for the Isle of Capri, boasts of having a workforce that is 48 percent minority.
"We don't have a set number or a quota," McMackin says. "But 90 percent of our employees live within five miles of our property."
PITG can make similar boasts. Walk through Don Barden's two Majestic Star Casinos in Gary, Ind., and you won't need statistics to tell you that his casino staff represents the community.
According to the 2000 U.S. census, Gary's population was 84 percent African American. Majestic Star Spokesman Bob Oltmanns says minority hiring at the two Gary sites is 68 percent. At Barden's Fitzgerald's Casinos in Tunica, Miss., and Las Vegas, minority hiring stands at 78 and 60 percent, respectively, in towns that are 70 and 49 percent non-white. Barden's employees don't just toil in service positions; they work as dealers and managers, too.
Oltmanns emphasizes that Barden is the only minority owner of a national casino company. Thus, says Oltmanns, Barden is "committed to diversity all the way up the corporate chain. What we're doing in Indiana, Mississippi and Las Vegas are the same things we're going to do here."
Since the Majestic Star Casino opened in 1996, says Gary's mayor, Rudolph Clay, Barden's company has "lived up to everything they wrote down on paper before opening this casino, especially when it comes to minority hiring."
Harrah's and Forest City's have promised a diverse workforce as well, and they've retained the Manchester Bidwell Corporation to help them deliver. Jesse Fife Jr., MBC's executive vice president and chief operating officer, says his organization, particularly the Bidwell Training Center, will work mainly to train the casino's hospitality employees. But it may also provide training for the casino's other positions, from management to security. MBC will also screen job hopefuls before the application process.
"We're looking to help those people with the proper skill sets find employment, regardless of whether they're African American or white," Fife says. Harrah's, he adds, is "proposing 2,000 new jobs and I would like all 2,000 of those to come from Western Pennsylvania."
In 2004, The American Gaming Association, a gambling-company lobbying group, released a "Gaming Industry Diversity Snapshot."
The study, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, is based on data provided by casinos to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Of the 500 casinos operating in the U.S., 138 casinos in 11 states provided information, though the study does not name the specific companies participating.
According to the study, 47.1 percent of casino employees were minorities, compared to a 26.5 percent average in the 11 states' overall workforce. Roughly 18 percent of casino workers were black, and a similar percentage was Latino, whereas the 11-state workforce was only 14.2 percent black and 8.3 percent Latino.
Dave Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, says casinos have dramatically increased their minority hiring over the past 20 to 30 years. Such hiring has become important as gambling expands, he notes.
"People will come to Las Vegas no matter what," Schwartz says. "But when you start building casinos in urban neighborhoods, on the upper Mississippi River or in the Deep South, [a diverse workforce] takes on a whole new level of importance."
Schwartz says all three companies pursuing Pittsburgh have good reputations for hiring minorities. Casinos "generally follow through on every promise they make because they know that license they get is a privilege," he says. "If they don't live up to what they say, it's not the hardest thing in the world to strip a casino of its license and give it to another company. ... But the bottom line is, casinos want local employees; they want people from the neighborhood who know the customers and their needs. They're not just looking for window dressing."
Neither, apparently is the gaming control board.
In mid-September, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, a board member took Harrah's to task over the number of contracts awarded to minorities and women during the construction of its new racetrack/casino outside Philadelphia. A mere 1.7 percent of contracts for the $500 million project were let out to minorities.
Fred Keeton, chief diversity officer for Harrah's, says it is not fair to judge a project's success in meeting diversity goals based on total spending. Contracts must be awarded based on the number of companies qualified and certified to do certain jobs, he says. That's a refrain familiar to anyone who followed the effort to secure such contracts for Heinz Field and PNC Park.
People like the Black Empowerment Project's Tim Stevens and Carl Redwood Jr., president of the Hill District Consensus Group, have been leery of the promises made by casinos. Redwood's group has not backed any of the proposals. Instead, it has proposed that the winning casino create a fund to improve the Hill District, and bankroll it to the tune of 10 percent of what it spends building a new Penguins facility.
Redwood's main concern is that while state gaming officials demand diversity from the casinos, they're not doing anything to guarantee it.
"The problem now is the same as it has been in the past ... there's no way to hold them accountable," Redwood says. "There are no goals for minority hiring in the law" ... and in any case, "it would be hard to hold these companies accountable because ... there's no mechanism in place to monitor it.
"I believe that what happened with the stadiums will happen again with the casinos," he concludes. "Why? Because there is nothing to keep it from happening, and no penalties in place when it does happen."