Crowds swarm Rivers Casino for its opening day

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With a touch of Vegas glitz, from leggy showgirls to fireworks, slots gambling arrived in Pittsburgh yesterday as big crowds swarmed the Rivers Casino on its opening day, eager to try out their luck.

If there was any doubt about the city's appetite for slots, it was all but dispelled by early afternoon, as customers huddled around many of the casino's 3,000 machines, nearly filled the 3,800-space parking garage and endured long lines that snaked around the gambling floor to sign up for players cards.

For the most part, the North Shore riverfront venue seemed to be an instant hit. If visitors weren't playing, they appeared to be eating, crowding several of the casino's restaurants, including its all-you-can-eat buffet.

As Dianna Davis, 38, of Braddock, sat at the casino's outdoor amphitheater and watched boats cruise the Ohio River, she couldn't help but be impressed.

"This is wonderful. Oh my god, it's so exciting. I've been to Las Vegas and I think this is as exciting as a casino in Las Vegas, especially in Pittsburgh," she said.

"I think it's going to change Pittsburgh forever," added Dan Sandroni, 45, of Crawford Square in the Hill District. "I just think it makes [the city] a little more contemporary."

More than three years in the making, the casino, which came close to bankruptcy last summer, opened at precisely noon in a shower of confetti and a burst of fireworks. A big cheer erupted from hundreds gathered outside on a sweltering August morning waiting to play before they streamed through the doors.

For the dignitaries gathered for the opening, the venue not only represents another entertainment choice but a potential cash cow. In the first year of operation, the casino expects to take in more than $400 million -- the equivalent of what players will lose -- with 55 percent of that going to the state, most for property tax relief.

Neil Bluhm, the Chicago billionaire who heads the group that took over the project last August after developer Don Barden failed to secure financing, believes the casino can deliver on its promise.

"It's hard to predict, but I think it will be a great success," he said.

The slots venue is expected to produce $10 million to $17 million a year for Allegheny County for its operating budget, County Executive Dan Onorato said. The city will get up to $10 million more.

Not everybody was enthralled with the casino's opening. Anti-gambling advocates in Pittsburgh joined members of Casino-Free Philadelphia to protest in front of the Rivers' main entrance. They held a banner that said "Casinos = Corruption."

"Today we mourn the opening of a fancy new facility that will suck $400 million out of the Pittsburgh-area economy while its wealthy owners claim they are doing something great for our city," said Bruce Barron, president of No Dice, an anti-gambling group.

But such voices seemed to be in the minority on a day when thousands -- no precise number was available -- packed the casino to try out brand-new slot machines or sample other amenities.

One couple rode their bicycles to the Rivers along the North Shore trail, part of which cuts through the venue. Another drove in from Cleveland.

Jim Hill, 58, of Brentwood, arrived at the casino about 9 a.m. He lost about $100 in his first hour inside but didn't seem to mind. He has been to Las Vegas and other casinos in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He liked the Rivers.

"I love it. It's really nice. I go to all kinds of casinos. This one is really nice," he said.

Lee Codispoti, 26, of Belle Vernon, tested his luck on a virtual blackjack machine. Mr. Codispoti, who has been to Las Vegas and Atlantic City and likes to play table games, believes the Rivers' electronic blackjack does a good job simulating the real thing.

"I'll definitely come back," he said.

But Bob Vincenti, 52, of Robinson, wasn't as impressed with an IGT virtual roulette machine that the casino says is the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania. He said there is no interaction with other players, as there is on actual roulette.

"I just came back from Vegas, and it's a lot better than this. I prefer to have interaction with others," he said, adding that he probably would return to the Rivers but "not on a regular basis."

One early winner was Lucile Reese, 64, of the North Side, who hit a $1 machine for $2,000. Ms. Reese, who visits casinos about three times a month, said it was her biggest jackpot ever. Not surprisingly, she liked the casino.

"It's going to be my home, yes," she said.

Not everything ran smoothly. Some people complained about how cold it was inside. Others were upset that they had to wait so long -- up to an hour -- to get a players card. The casino said it had four lines going to try to speed things up.

"I think for opening day they should have had a special process," said Valerie Dixon, 48, of East Liberty, who was still standing in line for her card half an hour after arriving at the casino.

But despite the big crowd and a baseball game at PNC Park, traffic around the North Shore did not appear to be the issue the Pirates and Steelers thought it would be after Mr. Barden won the license. In retrospect, such concerns "were overblown," said Mr. Barden, who attended yesterday's opening.

"I tried to tell them that. I had experienced it in Detroit. I knew what was going to happen," he said.

For some, things didn't go as planned. Susan Gordon, 61, of Ross, arrived at the casino at 7:15 a.m., hoping to hit it big. Instead, she ended up losing $300. Nonetheless, she said she would be back, if only for the "excitement of trying to win really big money."

A true Pittsburgher, she did have one complaint, however.

"I think they should have black-and-gold carpet, not orange for the Cincinnati Bengals," she said.

Kay Shearer, 67, of Monroeville, has been to lots of casinos in the past but said she probably will spend most of her time at the Rivers in the future. She had a simple explanation.

"If you're going to lose, you might as well lose close to home," she said.


Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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