Second day of gambling hearings more sedate
By Andrew Conte
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Fewer celebrities and surprises greeted state gambling regulators as their second day of public hearings on Pittsburgh’s casino proposals opened this morning.
There was no campaign-style rally outside the Omni William Penn Hotel. Casino applicants prepared to listen rather than dazzle with slick presentations.
Only former Steelers Hall-of-Fame running back Franco Harris — not Motown legend Smokey Robinson nor the parents of former Steelers soon-to-be-enshrined-in-the-Hall-of-Fame running back Jerome Bettis — turned out.
But one thing remained the same: Talk of a new arena colored hearings on the city’s slots proposals. Eleven of the 19 people who spoke on behalf of community groups this morning supported using gambling money for an arena.
“It’s now clear the team’s fate is directly tied to the issuance of a slots license,” said Michael Mooney, creator of a Web site called SlotsforMario.com, claiming that 36,000 had signed a petition to support using gambling money for an arena.
Four out of five young people who participated in a casino survey by the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project favored the Isle of Capri Casinos, the only bidder that would pay the full cost of an arena, said Belinda Yeager, the group’s representative.
“It is now time to replace the Mellon Arena,” said Barbara McNees, president of Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. “A modern arena would be a significant economic benefit to this region.”
Not everyone spoke in favor of the arena, however.
Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, praised the backers of Harrah’s Station Square Casino, which would give his group a $25 million endowment.
“It’s easy to say our organization benefits,” he said, “but our benefit goes to all of the parties involved in revitalizing our city through our historic assets.”
Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, said his group negotiated a letter of agreement with Majestic Star Casino, which would locate on the North Shore. The letter addresses the community’s concerns about potential negative effects, he said.
“We found them to be desirous of a true partnership with the community,” Fatla said.
Restaurants need protection from casinos, said Kevin Joyce, owner of Downtown’s Carlton Restaurant. He asked the board to ensure casino restaurants do not give away food or drinks or sell them below cost.
“You need to ensure they don’t unfairly compete,” Joyce said.
Harrah’s and Isle of Capri have agreed to allow union workers in their casinos, said Edward Nassan, a union leader with UNITE HERE Local 57, representing service industry workers. Dozens of the group’s members sat throughout the hotel ballroom Tuesday but not today.
“The creation of good quality service jobs is the most important economic benefit of gaming,” Nassan said. “There’s no other way for Pittsburgh to ensure good service jobs unless these jobs are unionized.”
The public is taking its turn today with 77 people — speaking for themselves or more than two dozen community groups — giving testimony to the state Gaming Control Board. Each of the three casino applicants will get time at the end of today’s hearings to make its case one last time.
Fewer than 100 people sat in the audience as today’s hearing started, less than half the number when the sessions opened Tuesday.
Isle of Capri Casinos has agreed to pay $290 million for a new arena, while Majestic Star Casino met Gov. Ed Rendell’s challenge to ante up $7.5 million a year for the arena if it wins the license.
Only Harrah’s Station Square Casino has not said what, if anything, it would contribute toward an arena. Its backers said Tuesday they support Rendell’s proposal but want a commitment from the Penguins to stay in Pittsburgh.
The Gaming Control Board wraps up testimony on the proposed Pittsburgh casino today. It expects to award the license for a slots parlor to one of the three applicants by mid-December.
Andrew Conte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 320-7835.