Casino task force in uproar over letter backing Isle of Capri plan
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Three members of the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force have resigned, and the Heinz Endowments has dropped its funding in the wake of the group's near-endorsement of Isle of Capri for the city's casino license.
The resignations were one repercussion from an evaluation released yesterday by the task force that rated Isle of Capri as the "strongest" of the three proposals for the slots casino.
Those who have resigned are Mary Navarro, senior program officer, arts and culture, for the Heinz Endowments; Ken Zapinski, a representative for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development; and Mike Edwards, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.
In a letter Tuesday to task force co-chairs Anne Swager and Ron Porter, Ms. Navarro said she was resigning because she felt the group was moving toward a specific recommendation and a possible endorsement of one bidder over another.
She said the Heinz Endowments, which has provided about $100,000 in funding to the task force, believes "this action runs counter to the original mission and the activity history of the task force since its creation" in 2005.
"The task force was set up to set parameters, guidelines and standards and to advocate for their being taken into consideration in the selection of licensees by the [state] Gaming Control Board, which has been vested by state government with the sole authority to do so," she wrote.
Because of the perceived change in direction, she no longer could serve as a member and the Heinz Endowments would provide no further funding to the group, according to the letter.
Mr. Zapinski said last night he resigned because the Allegheny Conference board had "not taken a position on who the applicant should be and they didn't think it was appropriate for me to participate in a recommendation to the Gaming Control Board."
Mr. Edwards could not be reached for comment last night, but Ms. Swager confirmed that he also had resigned.
"They want to be in charge of what they say. They don't want anybody else speaking for them," she said of the three organizations whose members quit.
However, Ms. Swager added she has no regrets about the group's near-endorsement of the Isle of Capri as the gaming board prepares to award a license for the Pittsburgh casino in December.
"I do think as this progressed that it was clear and needed to be acknowledged how good the Isle of Capri proposal was," she said. "For us, we felt it was important to note the difference and to challenge the Gaming Control Board that whoever gets the license needs to give the same commitment as Isle of Capri has."
She added the Heinz Endowments had been "so generous" in the funding of the task force that she did not believe there would be a need for more money, even if the group remains in a watchdog role after the award of the slots license.
Unlike Ms. Navarro, she did not believe the task force, appointed by former mayor Tom Murphy, had veered from its mission, saying its goal has always been to be a "voice for the best casino" for Pittsburgh.
At the news conference, the task force released a letter it had sent to the Gaming Control Board in which it said the Isle of Capri proposal should be the standard by which the others are judged.
The two other bidders for the license, PITG Gaming LLC and Forest City Enterprises, assailed the evaluation and questioned its fairness.
PITG Gaming charged the task force had wandered from its mission, as it saw it, to make recommendations on building design, site plans, and parking and to help mitigate casino negative impacts.
Forest City, which is teaming with Harrah's Entertainment on a proposed Station Square casino, accused the task force of being unfair by choosing to visit a Harrah's facility in Kansas City instead of one in St. Louis that it felt was more representative of its Pittsburgh plans.
Another not happy with the task force's evaluation was state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District. He said many residents of the Hill are opposed to a casino in their back yard.
"The task force was appointed by a mayor who chose not to run for re-election and it has no real authority to speak on behalf of the entire city about what's best for the city," he said.
Mr. Porter said Forest City's Station Square plan was hampered by a lack of information, particularly as it related to design and possible traffic congestion on Carson Street and in the West End.
"Because of that absence of information, we were not able to provide any kind of positive assessment of what they would do," he said.
He and Ms. Swager said the evaluation released yesterday may not be their final word on the subject and that there is still time for Forest City or PITG Gaming, with a planned North Shore casino, to improve their positions.
They challenged both to increase the community givebacks in their proposals and to further address the traffic issues that have given them the most concern.
"This is an ongoing process. This isn't over," Ms. Swager said.
Isle of Capri, which wants to build a casino in the lower Hill District, has offered $290 million toward a new arena, a giveback "significantly greater" than that in the other plans, the task force letter stated.
Forest City has offered a $25 million endowment to Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation for neighborhood development and $1 million a year toward a community investment fund.
It and PITG Gaming also have pledged $7.5 million a year for 30 years toward an arena under Gov. Ed Rendell's alternative funding plan. Like Isle of Capri, PITG Gaming also is proposing a redevelopment of the lower Hill where Mellon Arena now sits.
While the task force has no formal authority over the award of the license, it is hoping its evaluation will be given serious consideration by the gaming board.
Joe Weinert, vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, an industry consultant, said he believes the task force's recommendations could carry some weight.
"Being what strikes me as a nonpartisan organization and one dedicated to the purpose of studying gaming in Pittsburgh, I would think this recommendation might stand out from a lot of the other hyperbole and chatter in and about Pittsburgh over this issue," he said.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said task force members are "obviously entitled to their opinion," adding that he himself had backed the Isle of Capri plan when he was City Council president, an endorsement he has stayed with.
Both he and county Chief Executive Dan Onorato, who has not endorsed any applicant, said it was hard to tell what influence the task force evaluation would have on the award of the license.
First Published October 20, 2006 12:00 am