Hill clergy lead effort to rebuff slots casino in Hill

Ministers say that a casino would bring an increase in addiction, crime and poverty to the neighborhood

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Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
At a Freedom Square rally, Thelma Lovette, 90, a lifelong resident of the Hill District, listens as pastors from the Hill voice their opposition yesterday to construction of a casino in the neighborhood.
Click photo for larger image.

As the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board began hearings yesterday on the Pittsburgh slots license, a coalition of ministers and community supporters gathered at Freedom Corner to voice opposition to a casino in the Hill District.

"We must continue to say 'no,' and we invite other churches and institutions of the Hill to stand with us to say 'no' to gaming in the Hill," said the Rev. Johnnie Monroe, one of eight clergy who along with about a dozen supporters were there to address the issue.

The ministers, leaders of some of the Hill's oldest churches, say they represent thousands of residents and believe that a slot machine casino would bring an increase in addiction, crime and poverty to the neighborhood. They criticized others who support the plan to locate a slots parlor in the Lower Hill, one of three proposed sites for the lone Pittsburgh casino.

"As pastors, we cannot condone gambling and games of chance, because it is morally wrong and contributes to the decay of values we hold sacred," said the Rev. Tom Smith of Monumental Baptist Church.

"This is our first action to ensure that the spiritual and economic well-being of this community is not compromised," he said.

The Hill District ministers timed their comments to coincide with the Isle of Capri/Pittsburgh First presentation to the gaming control board in Harrisburg yesterday.

Isle of Capri Casinos Inc.'s is the only one of three competing proposals that would put a slots parlor in the Lower Hill, on the site of Mellon Arena. It has offered $290 million toward a new arena for the Penguins.

In its bid, Isle of Capri also has promised a $350 million redevelopment of the Lower Hill and a $1 million-a-year community reinvestment fund targeting the Hill and Uptown.

The Isle of Capri plan has been supported by city Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who lives in the Hill.

"Tonya Payne is an elected official and she's supposed to do the will of those she represents," said Mr. Smith. "If she doesn't, then we will elect someone who will."

Ms. Payne could not be reached for comment last night.

A Methodist minister, Ron Wandless of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, said there is a history of failing to deliver promised community benefits to residents of the Hill and condemned what he termed a "praise the slots and forget the have-nots" attitude.

A joint statement from the ministers said that, among other issues, they were concerned about the proposed Hill District casino because of insufficient development above Crawford Street, insufficient employment opportunities for people of color and inadequate commitment to neighborhood groups' involvement in redevelopment plans.

Public opposition to the proposed casino became more visible in the last month with the "Raise Your Hand -- No Games" movement. The focus of that effort is to protect the historic Hill, heighten public awareness of the plans and galvanize activism against a casino in a residential community.

The ministers said their action was partially fueled by a community meeting in the Hill Wednesday at which the three casino bidders were invited to share their plans with residents. Only one group, PITG Gaming LLC, which has proposed a casino for the North Shore coupled with Lower Hill development, showed up.

There were no representatives from Forest City Enterprises, which is teaming with Harrah's Entertainment on a proposed $512 million casino at Station Square, or from Isle of Capri.

"We are disturbed," said Mr. Monroe, pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, "at the disrespect that two of the groups [Isle of Capri and Harrah's/Forest City] recently showed. If this is the treatment that the community gets from the Isle of Capri now, just think of what will happen if they are awarded the license."

Like others yesterday, he voiced general opposition to casinos, but said the Hill can ill afford the negative influence he believes one would bring.

"We don't want it in Pittsburgh, period. If it must come, let it go to the North Side or Station Square. We don't want it near our residential district," he said.


Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.


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