City gaming task force backs Isle of Capri casino

Group formed as 'voice of Pittsburgh' says plan tied to Penguins arena in lower Hill is the best

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Isle of Capri has all but won the endorsement of a city task force in its billion-dollar bid for a slot machine casino in Pittsburgh.

   
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In a letter to be sent to the state Gaming Control Board, the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force said the Isle of Capri proposal stands out among the three competing for the coveted casino license.

"When we consider what is the best casino for Pittsburgh -- and in the larger context what is the best deal for Pittsburgh -- the Isle of Capri plan is the strongest," the task force said in a draft obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The task force said Isle of Capri's community giveback, which includes $290 million toward a new arena, was "significantly greater" than that in the other two proposals.

The task force was formed by former Mayor Tom Murphy to study the impact of the casino, interview potential operators, and be the "voice of Pittsburgh" before the Gaming Control Board, whose members have said they would take the panel's views into account before awarding a license.

Isle of Capri, with a proposed casino in the lower Hill District, is one of three bidders competing for the Pittsburgh license, which is scheduled to be issued before the end of the year.

The other bidders are Forest City Enterprises, which is teaming with Harrah's Entertainment on a proposed Station Square casino, and PITG Gaming LLC, headed by Detroit businessman Don Barden, with a proposal for the North Shore, near the Carnegie Science Center.

While the city task force stopped short of a formal endorsement, it said the gaming board should "evaluate each of three applicants for the Pittsburgh slots casino license using the Isle of Capri proposal as its standard."

It also called the office, retail and residential development proposed for the lower Hill a "promising sign."

The letter noted that Duquesne University and some Hill District residents have opposed the casino in their neighborhood, and the task force encouraged ongoing talks to mitigate negative impacts should Isle of Capri win the license.

But overall, the casino proposal "demonstrates excellent use of its site, exceptional design and urban planning, a comprehensive traffic plan, a commitment to a new arena, and a solid casino operator who will work with the local community," the draft said.

The task force was less flattering in assessing the Forest City proposal to build a $512 million casino at Station Square, plus a 200-room expansion of the Sheraton Hotel and a 1,200-unit residential development on the east side of the entertainment complex.

It said there were still unanswered questions about possible traffic congestion on Carson Street and in the West End Circle as well as issues relating to the design of the proposed casino.

That Forest City did not participate in a recent task force design study also was discouraging, the task force said.

A major reason it did not take part was related to a dispute over casino visits made by task force members earlier this fall. As part of those trips, the task force chose to visit a Harrah's casino in Kansas City rather than one in St. Louis recommended by Forest City.

Forest City believed the Harrah's St. Louis casino, with 2,833 slot machines and more than $300 million in annual gambling revenue, was more representative of what it was planning in Pittsburgh than the Kansas City facility, a two-level barge with fewer than 2,000 machines and less than $200 million a year in revenue.

As a result, Forest City decided against participating in the rest of the study, which involved a design-related meeting in Pittsburgh.

Forest City has pledged a $25 million endowment to Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation for neighborhood development and $1 million a year toward a community investment fund headed by Steeler Hall of Famer Franco Harris. However, the task force felt the Isle of Capri givebacks exceed those pledges, according to the letter.

While the task force had generally good things to say about the PITG Gaming proposal to build a Majestic Star casino on the North Shore, it said they were tempered by traffic concerns, particularly when the Steelers and Pirates play at their nearby facilities.

"In many ways, Majestic Star has the most problematic site; the road system around the proposed casino requires significant alteration and the island-like nature of the location makes adjacent economic development more difficult," the draft letter stated.

Representatives of PITG Gaming and Forest City Enterprises could not be reached for comment last night. David Morehouse, a spokesman for the Penguins, who are partners with Isle of Capri, declined comment.


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


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