Don Barden looks out over the North Shore.
Design by Strada
An artist's conception of PITG Gaming's North Side casino development.
Click images for larger versions.
Initially viewed as the long shot in this three-horse race, Detroit businessman Don Barden emerged from the pack today by winning Pittsburgh's lone casino license and earning the rights to build a slots parlor on the North Shore.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board voted in Harrisburg today in favor of Mr. Barden's PITG Gaming, the local incarnation of his Majestic Star casino chain, which bested its two better-known competitors: Isle of Capri Casinos, which had teamed with the Pittsburgh Penguins to propose a casino and new arena in the Lower Hill, and Harrah's Entertainment, which partnered with Cleveland's Forest City Enterprises on a Station Square casino plan.
Harrah's had the biggest industry name, and Isle of Capri was the choice of thousands of sports fans because of its ties to the hockey franchise, but in the end it was Mr. Barden who had the best proposal, as judged by the gaming board.
While Harrah's and Isle of Capri made their splashes late last year, Mr. Barden waited until April of this year to fully unveil his plan, doing so in front of the gaming board. He recruited retired Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis to front the proposal, and announced that his parents, Johnnie and Gladys Bettis, neighbors to Mr. Barden, would be investors in the casino, as would Motown singer Smokey Robinson. (Johnnie Bettis has since died).
At the same meeting, Mr. Barden also pledged $7.5 million a year for 30 years to support construction of a new arena for the Penguins, taking away some of the leverage that had been held by Isle of Capri to that point. Also in counterpoint to the Isle of Capri plan, he offered $350 million for investment in the Lower Hill District.
PITG won't build a temporary casino, as Isle of Capri and Harrah's would have, instead opting to concentrate full bore on the permanent, $450 million facility between the Carnegie Science Center and the West End Bridge. Plans call for the 400,000 square-foot casino to house a cylindrical glass atrium, four restaurants, three lounges, bars, shops and, of course, rows and rows of slot machines. Construction should take 14 months, meaning it will be open by spring 2008, although the gaming board itself has questioned that ambitious timetable.
The winner: The Majestic Star is proposed as a $450 million facility between the Carnegie Science Center and the West End Bridge.
Details: Plans call for the 400,000 square-foot casino to house a cylindrical glass atrium, four restaurants, three lounges, bars, shops and, of course, rows and rows of slot machines.
Work: Construction should take 14 months, meaning it will be open by spring 2008
Mr. Barden's plan was more palatable on a number of fronts than either the Hill or Station Square casino proposals. The traffic jams that may have come along with the Station Square casino won't be as much of a problem on the North Shore, except before and after Pirates and Steelers games. And by offering to spend development money on the Lower Hill, without putting a casino there, Mr. Barden extinguished the main complaint of Isle of Capri opponents -- that a casino so close to the Hill would spell disaster for the neighborhood and its residents.
Still, Mr. Barden had two high-profile opponents, namely the Steelers and the Pirates, neither of which favored the casino or wanted it to interfere with their own North Shore development plans.
But his legislative allies -- namely, Rep. Jake Wheatley and presumptive House Speaker H. William DeWeese -- may have been enough to offset the concerns of the two sports franchises. Both were guests of Mr. Barden at Super Bowl XL, which was played in Detroit in February. And Mr. Barden, who is black, is also the only minority applicant in the state, which was considered an advantage because the state wanted to include minority-owned businesses in its new casino enterprise.
Even though Mr. Barden has committed $7.5 million a year to a new arena, the issue isn't exactly settled. The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey franchise had hitched its wagon to Isle of Capri and its promise of $290 million in arena funding. Now the franchise, if it is to stay in Pittsburgh, will have to negotiate the terms of a "Plan B" financing arrangement. Jim Balsillie, the Canadian businessman who agreed to buy the Penguins then backed out at the last minute, seemed agreeable to "Plan B," but new owners, whoever they are, might not be as eager to contribute their own funds to a new arena.