Mayor wants fast resolution to Pittsburgh slots license

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Whatever happens to the troubled Pittsburgh casino project, the facility should remain on its under-construction North Shore site and all promises to the city, Penguins and neighborhood groups must be kept, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said in a wide-ranging press conference this morning marking his return from vacation.

He said that in spite of an ownership shakeup, he believes a casino could open here next year, bringing promised city revenue. But to make that happen, he wants a series of meetings involving himself, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, the state Gaming Control Board, and the prospective new majority owners of the Majestic Star Casino.

"We've been as supportive as we could have been up until this point," he said of the city's cooperation with Detroit-based Don Barden, who won the right to build the city's only casino in a year-long process run by the Gaming Control Board. But Mr. Barden hasn't been able to arrange financing for the project and is negotiating a deal to turn majority ownership of the project over to an investors' group from Chicago that includes billionaire Neil Bluhm.

"Now all of a sudden, the rules of the game have changed," the mayor said.

He stopped short of endorsing a proposal backed by state Sens. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, and Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, to rebid the casino license.

He said he and staff need to consult carefully with board officials before deciding whether to back revocation or a transfer to new ownership.

"It is growing increasingly frustrating to me to be asked questions [about] this, not hearing from the Gaming Control Board," he said. He said he wants a closed-door meeting, followed by a transparent process for deciding the fate of the license.

He acknowledged that either revocation or a license transfer creates challenges, given the long list of commitments Mr. Barden has made, his debts which may be in default, and the presence of a partially built casino.

"We need to make sure that [Mr. Bluhm's] group is capable, and is going to live up to the commitments that have been made," he said, listing the promise to help fund a new Penguins arena, and backing for North Side and Hill District community groups.

The site should not be in play, he said. "I do believe that if it were to be rebid or revoked, it should be everybody's goal to put it where it is now," he said.

The city's fiscal plan counts on $5.3 million from a casino next year, $9.9 million in 2010, and $11.9 million in 2011. Mr. Ravenstahl said he still believes the city has a good shot at getting that revenue, but if it doesn't, the healthy $89 million fund balance should be able to absorb the hit next year.

He said whatever process emerges for dealing with Mr. Barden's license, it must be reasonably quick, but thorough. "I don't know that I would support anything that is going to take a year or two years," he said.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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