Newest casino threat: Winter

August opening hinges on roof, walls being done before bad weather

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The Pittsburgh casino is in a race against winter.

Rescued from the brink of bankruptcy, the slots parlor still is facing big challenges if it is to open by next August, the timetable set by the new ownership group headed by Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm.

As construction workers return to the site this week and next for the first time in nearly two months, they will be jumping into a high-stakes contest to get the casino's roof on and the building enclosed before bad weather arrives.

Do so and the odds are good the casino will be completed on time. A stumble could further push back the opening, originally scheduled for May, and delay millions of dollars in tax payouts to the state, the city and the county.

"I'll tell you what, this is a very, very aggressive schedule. If they don't get this building closed in in the good weather, they have a big problem," said Rich Stanizzo, business manager of the Pittsburgh Building and Construction Trades Council.

The building's "skin" needs to be up before rain, snow, and cold temperatures hit to enable a host of contractors to get moving on electrical, plumbing, mechanical and other interior finishes.

After a work stoppage lasting nearly eight weeks when Don Barden was unable to secure permanent financing for the project, the casino is at "kind of a critical juncture" right now, said Ed Fasulo, general manager.

"We need to get on a fast track to get the building enclosed so winter won't have an impact," he said.

Workers began returning to the riverfront site next to Carnegie Science Center Tuesday after Mr. Bluhm's group, Holdings Acquisition Co., closed on $555 million in financing. It won approval from the state Gaming Control Board last week to take over the project from Mr. Barden. Full construction should resume by Monday.

Crews were exactly on or slightly ahead of schedule for a May opening when work stopped June 30, Mr. Fasulo said. About 60 percent of the casino's structural steel and 20 percent of the precast concrete for the parking garage being built behind it had been erected.

That fast start should help as construction kicks back into gear.

"We got a good jump on it right now because we were able to get so much of the steel and precast erected," said Dan Keating III, chairman of Philadelphia-based Keating Building Corp., the general contractor.

Mr. Fasulo said the structural steel work should be completed by mid October and the garage should be finished by the end of November.

At peak construction, about 1,250 people will be working at the site. Overall, about 2,500 workers will be involved in the $780 million construction.

Mr. Fasulo said he's not too worried about getting the building enclosed before winter. He said contractors have the ability to put on double shifts or do "accelerated scheduling" to ensure that the skin is in place before bad weather hits.

Asked how confident he was that the casino would be finished in a year, Mr. Keating left no doubt. "We're going to hit August," he stated flatly.

That does not mean it will be easy. Mr. Stanizzo estimated that some 2 million man-hours of work remain, and Mr. Keating acknowledged that the pace could become "frenetic" in the last couple of months.

"I fully expect we'll be having lights on at night," he said.

Given the casino's prime riverfront spot, the public will have little trouble following the pace of the construction. Little of the casino work itself will impact them, but associated road work might, particularly those going to Steelers or Pitt games at Heinz Field.

About $9 million worth of road changes and improvements are resuming with the casino construction. As part of that work, the ramp from Route 65 to the North Shire is closed, and a ramp from the West End Bridge to the North Shore is restricted to one lane.

In addition, traffic is reduced to one lane on Reedsdale Street from North Point Drive to North Shore Drive; on North Shore Drive from Reedsdale Street to Allegheny Avenue; and on Fontella Street from Allegheny Avenue to Ridge Avenue.

Nonetheless, Mr. Fasulo said he doesn't believe the work will result in major problems for Steelers or Pitt fans.

"We don't think it's going to be a substantial or significant impact. [Fans] will have to make some adjustments but we don't think it's going to dramatically affect traffic flows," he said.

He said the casino and the Steelers will revisit the situation after the first couple of games to determine if changes need to be made. The restrictions should end anywhere from January to April, as work is completed.

"The continued development of the North Shore is a positive for the city, but we can expect to deal with some traffic issues due to construction during the process," said Jimmie Sacco, Heinz Field executive director of stadium management.

"We continue to recommend that people take advantage of the many Downtown parking options available to them, and we will regularly update our fans on the best possible alternative routes to take on Steelers game days and for Heinz Field events."

The casino was headed for a possible bankruptcy after Mr. Barden was unable to get permanent financing and defaulted on a $200 million bridge loan used to start construction.

Mr. Bluhm's group stepped forward to provide $205 million in cash for the project, and ended up as majority owner. Mr. Barden was left with 20 percent and no controlling voice.

Mr. Keating, who was instrumental in bringing Mr. Bluhm into the project, praised the local contractors and subcontractors for staying with the job even as the casino's fate hung in the balance. They ended up being owed more than $50 million, which they finally received this week.

"You don't have any idea how fortunate you are to have the caliber of the subcontractor and worker that you do. I'd jump into a foxhole with any one of them. They're great people. We're happy and lucky to be back," he said.


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


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