In its five years on the North Shore, Rivers Casino not only has proved to be adept at making money but in turning foes into friends.
As the casino celebrates its fifth anniversary today, the vibe is far different than it was in the months leading up to its construction and in the early days after its opening, when the riverfront venue struggled to hit revenue projections.
After winning the Pittsburgh slots license in 2006, Detroit businessman Don Barden battled the Steelers, the Pirates, the Carnegie Science Center, Riverlife and others in and out of court over issues relating to the casino’s impact and its design.
There were concerns about massive traffic jams, particularly on Steelers and Pirates game days; rampant crime; the size of the parking garage marring the city’s riverfront; and even that lights from the casino would disrupt the neighboring science center’s observatory.
At one time, the science center even wanted Mr. Barden, who died in 2011, to build a pedestrian tunnel or bridge to shield its visitors from casino traffic.
Five years into the casino’s run, it appears that many of the biggest concerns were unfounded.
Ann Metzger, the science center’s co-director, said that the casino has been a “very good neighbor” and that there have been “no adverse effects” from its proximity, not to lighting, to traffic, or to anything else.
“I haven’t seen any impact one way or the other to them being next door to us,” she said of the traffic. “Our visitors find their way as usual. They have no trouble with ingress or egress and I’m sure the same is true for the casino.”
To satisfy the center’s concerns, Mr. Barden agreed to widen a road into the facility for school buses, improve a parking lot, and to fund a new traffic signal. Ms. Metzger said that, if anything, the casino has been a plus because it sometimes buys parking space from the center during big events.
Riverlife, which sparred with Mr. Barden over the size of the massive 3,800-space parking garage, even suing unsuccessfully to block it, now holds its annual Party at the Pier at the casino’s riverfront park.
Lisa Schroeder, Riverlife CEO, said the tone changed when Mr. Barden, unable to raise money to complete the casino, lost it to a group headed by Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm. The new ownership, she said, reached out to Riverlife for help in shaping the casino’s riverfront. The result is “one of those most beautiful privately funded public riverfront parks in all of the Downtown area.”
“We’ve been very pleased with the amount of beauty and top-notch design that Rivers Casino has invested in their riverfront, and they’re a model for other private riverfront owners who are developing their properties,” Ms. Schroeder said.
Bob Oltmanns, who served as Mr. Barden’s spokesman, sees things differently. He believes the concerns raised by the various groups were overblown to start with and “merely an attempt to delay or thwart the project from going forward.”
“None of those scare tactics that were thrown in our way were legitimate,” he said, adding that many of the concerns “miraculously disappeared” after Mr. Barden lost the casino.
But Jimmie Sacco, Heinz Field executive director of stadium management, said there’s a reason traffic hasn’t become a major issue. It’s because of improvements made after the Steelers and Pirates forced the issue and the collaboration between the casino, the teams and police over the last five years, he argued.
“If these policies and procedures weren’t implemented and put into place there would be chaos,” he said.
Although design and traffic concerns dominated the debate before the casino was built, money took the spotlight after it opened.
The casino suffered two bond downgrades in its first year of operation amid concerns that it wasn’t generating enough cash to meet debt obligations, including an annual $7.5 million contribution to pay for the Consol Energy Center.
But many of those concerns have since dissipated. Mr. Bluhm and other investors poured $108 million into the casino in 2010 to shore up its financial footing and the advent of table games that same year helped to change the venue’s fortunes.
Rivers was projected to generate $427.8 million in slot machine gross terminal revenue in its first year but has yet to come close to that number. It produced $284.3 million in such revenue last year.
Nonetheless, the casino now is the third top money maker in the state, up two spots from 2010, churning out $351.9 million in combined slots and table game revenue last year. That translated into $161.9 million in tax revenue.
“We’re really happy with the performance,” said Greg Carlin, Rivers CEO.
He attributed the casino’s improvement to a number of factors, including table games, which he said had a “huge impact,” one that even helped to increase slots play.
The casino, he acknowledged, also made a “bunch of mistakes early on,” such as charging $50 to park in its garage during the Steelers’ first exhibition game shortly after opening, that have since been rectified. It also has made a concerted effort to do more to attract customers.
“We had to work very hard to get folks to come and try Rivers,” Mr. Carlin said.
In its first five years, the casino estimates that it has paid out $744.7 in state and local taxes and an additional $48.6 million in contributions, including $37.5 million for Consol Energy Center, $3 million each to the Hill District and the Northside Leadership Conference, and $531,112 in donations to community groups. It also employs about 1,800 people.
Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, said jobs have been the biggest positive coming out of the casino’s presence.
“There’s a whole new industry and it produced a whole new batch of jobs and some new careers. If you’re in the hospitality industry, there’s a whole new avenue in the hospitality industry where you can pursue a career,” he said.
As for the concerns about the casino’s operation versus the reality, Mr. Fatla took a more tempered approach. “All the gloom and doom did not come to pass. All the rosy projections did not come to pass. The reality was all somewhere in the middle,” he said.
Although the casino has brought more crime simply by being there, Pittsburgh police have “not seen the type of crime increase everyone has been predicting,” said Commander RaShall Brackney of the Zone 1 station.
The number of reportable incidents at the casino has fluctuated between 61 and 70 over the last three years, with the most common being thefts, robberies and driving under the influence.
As for problem gambling, a spokeswoman for Gamblers Anonymous in the Pittsburgh region said the organization has seen an increase in attendance as a result of casino gambling but she had no numbers to quantify it.
Looking to the future, the casino’s next steps could include a new air filtration system, updates to its restaurants, and possibly a new hotel to increase the mix of amenities available to gamblers, Mr. Carlin said.
As Mr. Oltmanns sees it, Mr. Barden would be proud of what has become of the venue he designed, nurtured and toiled over before having to give it up.
“Pittsburgh was to be the crown jewel in his casino operation and it certainly has lived up to that. It’s too bad he didn’t live to see it,” he said.
Mark Belko: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1262.