Sabotaged in Pittsburgh
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I first met Don Barden over dinner in February 2006. In my work with him over the subsequent 30 months, I saw how he possessed the wits and resolve characteristic of an American entrepreneur. I came to see how this great-grandson of a freed slave fought his way up from the mailroom of a shipping company to become part of an elite group of African-American business success stories.
Don Barden has the tenacity of a pit bull and a capacity for hard work that would put a much younger man to shame. But more important, Mr. Barden has the honesty, character, humility and sincerity of a guy you would be honored to count as your friend.
From my front-row seat to the Pittsburgh casino saga, I can say without reservation that Don Barden is a good and decent man. He's the kind of guy Pittsburgh used to embrace, yet from Day One he was maligned, criticized and disparaged by rumor and innuendo and never got the benefit of the doubt that he deserved. He may have made some missteps, but his ultimate shortcoming was that he did not have the financial wherewithal to overcome an historic decline in the credit market.
The euphoria Mr. Barden felt on winning the Pittsburgh gaming license and then again on groundbreaking day eventually was dashed by the threat of bankruptcy, which weighed heavily on him. The media, politicians, critics and the uninitiated condemned him as construction stalled, as thousands of construction jobs hung in the balance and as Mr. Barden worked day and night to resolve the crisis. But I found it interesting that through all of that, not a single contractor or construction worker uttered an unkind word about him. Not one.
I know he wanted to go on fighting. It's in his DNA. But in the end, he did what he knew he had to do to keep hard-working construction families from getting hurt, and he put Pittsburgh ahead of a dream to which he had devoted five years of his life.
And for that, Pittsburgh ran him out of town.
Literally from the very hour that Mr. Barden was awarded Pittsburgh's gaming license, he was castigated as the guy who would cost Pittsburgh its National Hockey League franchise because his proposal did not include full funding for a new Penguins arena. Now, $225 million in arena funding and $3 million in funding for both the Hill District and North Side neighborhoods are secure because Don Barden insisted they be made part and parcel of the casino project, even with the knowledge that he would receive nothing in return for those commitments.
Later, the competitors for the Pittsburgh gaming license, Isle of Capri and Station Square Gaming/Harrah's, appealed the gaming board's decision in favor of Mr. Barden to the state Supreme Court, delaying the project by six months and pushing it into the worst credit crisis since the Great Depression. This ultimately doomed Mr. Barden's attempt to secure permanent financing. Lawyers assailed his proposal for being built on debt financing, conveniently overlooking the fact that all three Pittsburgh casino proposals were almost entirely debt-financed.
Then the Steelers and Pirates appealed the casino's master plan, demanding that a year-long traffic study be completed prior to Planning Commission approval. They dismissed the fact that they themselves did not complete traffic studies for Heinz Field and PNC Park until days before their respective stadiums opened.
Month after month, new obstacles were thrown in Mr. Barden's way and new demands placed on him. He was criticized for resisting the public process, when precisely the opposite was true. Mr. Barden depended on the public process to ensure that the license applications were reviewed fairly and honestly, and he followed the rules of law and procedure to the letter. In return, he became the defendant of a public process run amok. If any private development project in the history of this city has ever been subjected to such ever-changing standards and demands, I've not seen it.
After this tragic episode, I wonder why any investor or developer would want to take a chance on Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh has long proclaimed itself to be a haven of entrepreneurship. But the Pittsburgh casino saga proves the hypocrisy in this mantra. In other parts of the country, risk and failure are celebrated as part of the healthy pursuit of the American dream. Not here. In a city struggling with a lethargic economy, there is no respect for rolling the dice and taking a chance, even when it's done with private capital.
With control of the casino shifting from Don Barden to Neil Bluhm, the African-American community in Pittsburgh has lost a great benefactor and an extraordinary role model. Mr. Barden's foundation and scholarship programs have been major sources of pride and impact in the communities where his businesses are located, and Pittsburgh was next in line to benefit from his generosity. I'm saddened to think of what kind of incredible gain this city will never realize as a result of that loss.
It was hypocrisy that drove Don Barden from this community and, as a Pittsburgher, I'm ashamed at the treatment he received. The economy and credit crisis merely offered cover to those committed to seeing him fail. He's a good man who will be missed, and Pittsburgh is the lesser for his departure.
First Published August 27, 2008 12:00 am