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Casino prompts worry

By Bill Zlatos and Andrew Conte
Friday, February 3, 2006

The Penguins proposal to build a casino in the Lower Hill District as part of a new arena deal is drawing opposition from nearby Duquesne University.

University President Charles Dougherty said Thursday he wants to protect the school’s 10,000 students from the distractions of gambling. “About one-third of them live on campus, and we don’t want them exposed to a slots parlor within a five-minute walk of campus.”

The Penguins have partnered with Isle of Capri Casinos, a gambling company based in Biloxi, Miss., and Nationwide Realty Investors, a company from Columbus, Ohio, that built a privately-funded arena in that city.

The three partners would form a nonprofit group called Pittsburgh First. Their proposal would transform the Lower Hill District with a casino, new 18,000-seat arena and 28 acres of housing and restaurants on the site of Mellon Arena.

Dougherty favors the commercial and housing aspects of the plan. He stressed that the university’s opposition to the casino does not mean that it is against the Penguins or a new arena for the hockey team.

“We’re fast friends with the Penguins,” he said. “We think the casino should be placed away from large concentrations of students and the owners forced to contribute to build a new arena.”

Dougherty cited studies that show the harmful effects of gambling on young adults. A Harvard report, for example, found that college students are three times more likely than adults and 20.5 percent more likely than youths to be “clinically disordered” gamblers.

“We also know that in some cases, casinos have drawn other problems like problems with alcohol, problems with illegal drugs and problems with prostitution,” he said.

Placing a casino close to college students is asking for trouble, agrees Bill Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

“Even (winning) $500 gives them a big rush, and they want the rush again,” said Thompson, an author on gambling. “If they get on a winning streak early, they can be hooked for life.”

Penguins officials were disappointed by Duquesne’s announcement.

“We think gaming is the economic engine that would invest over a billion dollars to revitalize the neighborhood around Duquesne University and actually make the city and the campus more livable,” said David Morehouse, the Penguins’ senior consultant.

“If the concern is that Duquesne students will frequent the casino, we want them to know the Isle of Capri is adamant about enforcing the age requirement of 21 to gamble.”

An age limit, however, will only create a boom in the market for false ID cards, Thompson said.

Members of a volunteer group studying ways to minimize the adverse impact of Pittsburgh’s casinos will review Duquesne’s decision.

“We’re going to weigh all of that public opinion,” said Anne Swager, co-chairwoman of the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force. “We had hoped all along the casino can be a good neighbor.”

Asked whether a casino can be a good neighbor to a university, Swager said she had no idea.

“It just illustrates that there are multiple points of view, and that there’s going to be a tremendous challenge in reconciling the various viewpoints that exist about all three potential sites,” said Ron Porter, the other co-chair of the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force. “All three have pluses and minuses.”

The Lower Hill District site is one of three proposed for slots in the city and one of four in Allegheny County.

Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises wants to open Harrah’s Station Square Casino. Detroit casino owner Don Barden wants to build a Majestic Star Casino on the North Shore. And Hays machine operator Thamer Collins wants to put a casino on vacant land near the Waterfront shopping center in West Homestead.

Dougherty said he had made his decision in consultation with his staff and the executive committee of Duquesne’s board of directors. He said board member Glenn Mahone — who owns a minority stake in the Station Square casino proposal — was not part of those discussions.

The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, located a few miles away in Oakland, have not taken positions on the proposed casino.

The Gaming Control Board, a seven-member group of state regulators, could issue casino licenses this summer.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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