PITG wins slots casino license for North Side

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HARRISBURG -- The state Gaming Control Board today approved PITG Gaming Majestic Star to receive Pittsburgh's stand-alone casino license.

PITG plans to build a slot machine parlor on the North Side near the Carnegie Science Center.

PITG is headed by Detroit developer and casino operator Don Barden, who also celebrates his 63rd birthday today.

   
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Listen in
Listen to excerpts of a joint press conference with Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on PITG Gaming's selection for the Pittsburgh casino:
Onorato: "Time to move forward"
Ravenstahl: "An exciting day for Pittsburgh"
Ravenstahl: Creating a casino impact task force
Onorato and Ravenstahl: Reaching out to the Penguins    

In unanimously approving PITG, the board rejected proposals from Isle of Capri, which wanted to build a parlor in the Hill District, and Forest City Enterprises, which set its sights on Station Square.

Mr. Barden held hands with his wife Bella as the vote was taken and shed tears when he knew he had won.

"My heart skipped several beats. It was an exhilarating, incredible feeling."

Mr. Barden said he plans to talk with Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato to discuss support for a new arena, which is being sought by the Penguins. Local officials had pressed all three slots applicants for commitments to fund an arena, but Isle of Capri had the most definitive pledge of support.

Mr. Barden has already agreed to the so-called Plan B pushed by Gov. Ed Rendell. That means he has pledged $7.5 million per year for 30 years from casino revenue toward an arena.

Mr. Barden said he is not planning a temporary casino. Instead he plans to open the permanent facility with at least 3,000 machines in March 2008. Eventually he hopes to offer 5,000 machines.

He said the casino would be "first class" and very similar to Las Vegas.

He also noted that he would proceed on his pledge to help redevelop parts of the Hill District.

Mr. Barden also became teary eyed when he talked about Johnnie Bettis, father of former Steelers star Jerome Bettis. Mr. Barden knew the Bettis family from Detroit and brought them into his investment group.

Johnnie Bettis recently died.

"I think he had a little to do with the success today," Mr. Barden said.

Michelle Sherman, chief financial officer for Barden Cos., also burst into tears of joy when the vote was taken. "Oh my God, I'm crying, oh my God. I'm overwhelmed. Mr. Barden is the consummate visionary and entrepreneur. This is something he deserved."

Mr. Barden owns five other casinos; this will be the largest.

"This changes the whole direction of our company. We're going to be bigger, stronger," she said.

Brian Ratner, Forest City executive vice president of East Coast development, said, "We had a lot of plans for that (Station Square) site. I don't know what we're going to do now. I don't know what their reasoning was.

"All we can do today is congratulate Don Barden. It's hard to know what the board's rationale was."

This isn't necessarily the end of the road for applicants rejected today.

The losers can appeal, but to win they will have to prove that the board's decision was arbitrary and capricious -- in other words, that there was no rational basis for it, said board spokesman Doug Harbaugh.

Appeals must be filed within 30 days of when the board issues its formal orders, which could take weeks. Orders are legal documents that outline the requirements for the licenses.

Appeals, if any, will go directly to the state Supreme Court.

Pittsburgh Council President Doug Shields said after the vote that the North Side appears to be the best physical location.

"The North Side site, in my mind, offers probably the best access given the highway infrastructure available," Mr. Shields said. He also applauded the riverfront access of the casino and said it could generate development of the Manchester neighborhood.

But Mr. Shields noted that the vote leaves open the question of the future of the Penguins in Pittsburgh. Isle of Capri had an agreement with the Penguins to provide $290 million for an arena, which the team has been seeking to replace Mellon Arena.

"We will begin to sit down and assess what we need to do in regards to a public auditorium, both the city and the county," Mr. Shields said.

The Penguins ownership group issued a statement this afternoon expressing disappointment and saying it would evaluate its options. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato pledged to continue to work for a new facility.

The decision also disappointed the Steelers, who didn't want a gambling parlor as their neighbor.

"It seemed it was a process that was designed to give little weight to local interests and the result is indicative of that," Steelers President Art Rooney II said in a statement. "We will have to consider all of our options in determining how to respond to this decision."

City Councilwoman Tonya Payne, in whose district the casino will sit, said she was "totally shocked" by the decision. An ardent supporter of the Isle of Capri's bid, she nonetheless welcomed the news that the facility would be on the North Side. "This is good news for the City of Pittsburgh, period. This is revenue we get without any overhead."

She said the city should make sure that Mr. Barden's group goes through with the development of the Hill District.

Some Hill District leaders had opposed the proposal for a casino in their neighborhood.

The Rev. Tom Smith, the pastor of Monumental Baptist Church in the Hill, was pleased with the vote.

"This neighborhood has been spared a lot of suffering," he said. "The main thing for us was the protection of this community against the impact of gambling, the whole gambling industry."

Smokey Robinson, a partner in PITG Gaming, called today's vote "one of the most gratifying things that's ever happened to me," although he didn't call it a miracle.

"First of all to be a minority. Don Barden is a wonderful man and he's black and to get a thing like that in a city like Pittsburgh is a wonderful honor.

"We plan on doing so many wonderful things for the city of Pittsburgh," Mr. Robinson said, also mentioning the plans for the Hill District.

"We thought all along that we were going to get it because we had the best location, we had the best man at the helm."

Before the Pittsburgh vote, the board approved HSP Gaming and Philadelphia Entertainment and Development for the two available licenses in that area. Both Philly winners are riverfront developments estimated at at least $550 million.

The board also awarded the two licenses available outside the big cities to the Las Vegas Sands for Bethlehem and Louis DeNaples for Pocono Mountain.

The board chose those over a controversial proposal to locate a casino near Gettysburg National Battlefield. Janice Pietrone, a former Pittsburgh teacher who is one of the leaders of the Gettysburg casino opposition, was part of a contingent at the meeting.

She said the battlefield already brings in substantial tourist dollars.

Ron Heinning, who with his wife Violet just moved to the Gettysburg area from Eden, N.Y., because of their enthusiasm for the area and its proximity to Washington, said, "I just really think (the casino) is unneeded. If you want that experience, go to Las Vegas," he said.

He and his wife have been to the battlefield many times and were taking friends on a tour today. He is a retired salesman.

Ruth Nolt, 54, of Mount Joy, Lancaster County, said "People gave their lives here. To be playing games seems to detract from that."


Post-Gazette staff writers Rich Lord, Jerome Sherman and Ann Belser contributed to this story. More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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