Tuesday, April 18, 2006

One Eyed Bandits on Da' Mon An'at

Pittsburgh is all a twitter about which of the 3 competing enterprises will get the coveted slots casino license designated for the city. While the gaming commission has not yet decided which company will have the honor of building a casino in Pittsburgh, the participants are mounting ad and PR campaigns on the local media that would not be out of place during an election campaign. Although your's truly thinks that like politicians, the casino groups will over promise, but under deliver.

Personally, I am not against gambling. If you want to throw your money away in an endeavor that guarantees that eventually you WILL lose, go for it. I love to see people destroy themselves in astoundingly stupid ways. I'm a big fan of the Darwin Awards. While I have sympathy for the families and loved ones who end up being adversely affected by the nasty by-products of gambling addiction, the small part of me that has a libertarian streak pretty much dictates that people have to exercise personal responsibility and restraint, although the realist in me knows that's not going to happen. However, there is a reason that casinos are designed and managed the way they are, and that is to instill a sensory overload and a sense of detachment from the real world that causes its patrons to lose all track of time, and also their inhibitions. People who go to slots parlors will exhibit strange behavior not usually seen in normal life. They'll stand in front of a machine for hours on end swearing on a stack of Bibles that 'this is the one' that will pay off the big score. They believe that just by looking they can tell that a specific machine is either 'loose or tight' even though each slots machine is set up exactly the same. They will stake out 'their' machine and protect it with all the ferocity of a mama bear protecting its cubs. They'll play three and four machines at a time, moving from one to the other as their psychic abilities tell them which slots are due. They will exhibit every emotion in the human condition whilst playing, and ultimately, they will go home hours later wallets and purses lighter, but buzzing from the high of taking risks, and putting it all on the line, or a few dollars at least.

It's highly unlikely that I will be going to this casino whenever it opens, because I have a feeling that I might become addicted, although I don't consider myself much of a gambler. I don't even play the lottery because I have much more important ways to part with the little bit of scratch I get from my jobs. Maybe if they are hiring security people or slots attendants, I might apply.

Okay, let's get away from my hackneyed attempt at gambling psychology and talk about the combatants for the hearts and minds of Pittsburgh's gamblers. In a bold faced effort to glom onto the recent success of the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl victory, each of the casino groups have posted prominent former Steelers at the head of their PR campaigns in the hope that the city's insane love affair with the Black and Gold will give them the edge. Now think about this folks, all THREE of the groups have former Steeler figureheads, so where's the advantage? Oh well, I guess they haven't figured that one out yet.

The first group that I will go through is the Harrahs/ Forest City casino group. According to the press release dated 1-23-06, Forest City Enterprises which owns Station Square plans to put about $1 billion dollars of investment capital into the popular South Side shopping and entertainment complex. Among the very ambitious projects encompassed into their plan are: ground floor retail space, sidewalk dining, and cafes, a 400,000 square foot $512 million dollar Harrahs casino with 3000 slots, an additional 200 rooms in the Station Square Sheraton Hotel, and 1,250 condos. There is also the possibility of expansion of the casino to 5,000 slots. as well as the building of a new 300-500 room hotel tower. Forest City has enlisted the help of former Steeler great Franco Harris to pitch this plan to the commission and the public as well as run a charitable foundation that will make funds available to support minority communities. All very laudable and ambitious. The opponents of this plan state that Harrah's traffic projections are off, and they(Harrah's) also claim that their daily per slot machine income is much higher than can be reasonably projected. Also, there are objections to the casino and subsquent development on the grounds that Carson Street which runs along Station Square and is one of the most crowded streets in the city on Saturday nights will become even more jammed up as casino patrons and Station Square shoppers mix and mingle with the bar crowds that hit clubs further down Carson, thereby increasing the number of accidents and drunk drivers that will be out on the streets.

The second group, and the one I feel has the best chance to win the license, is the Pittsburgh First/ Isle of Capri group which according to their press release, wants to build a casino and other revitalization projects on the Lower Hill and also provide $290 million dollars towards the construction of a new arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, who, according to owner and former Penguin superstar Mario Lemieux, must have a new arena or else they will leave Pittsburgh. These guys have been hitting the pavement pretty hard with a recent rally to support the I of C plan. Isle of Capri wants to redevelop the area around the current arena, which has been a sore spot for the local black community ever since much of the Lower Hill was razed 50 years ago to build Mellon Arena, forcing thousands of Hill District residents out of their homes and to other parts of the city. Isle of Capri could have the support of the black community if they do this right. Also, they have trotted out former Steeler wide receiver and gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann as their pitchman. This looks like a win-win situation for Pittsburgh. The city gets an arena more or less for free, Isle of Capri gets to build a casino in an untapped market, and maybe the Hill will get some closure. I don't really care about the Penguins. If they were playing in my back yard, I'd probably close the door and watch wrestling. They priced me out of their market years ago. I'm not going to spend $50 for nosebleed seats to watch a bad hockey team, even though they have the next great NHL star in Sidney Crosby. And I'm one of the few black folks who likes hockey let alone understands it. If I had to be in favor of a plan, this would be the one I'd choose. I don't necessarily think the arena will be as gratis as everyone thinks. Those who will be feeding the one armed bandits will be the ones paying for it, although that's not a bad thing as long as I don't have to. I haven't been to an event in the Civic/Mellon Arena in years, so a new arena does not really faze me one way or another. As long as the city doesn't have to dig into it's pockets to build the damn thing, I'm happy.

The third entry in this sweepstakes is a newcomer from Detroit. Don Barden, the only Black entrant in the running leads a group called PITG Gaming, LLC which has the support of Governor Ed Rendell. Under Mr. Barden's plan, his group will contribute $7.5 million per year for 30 years towards the building of a new arena. His plan consists of putting up a casino on the North Side near Heinz Field, and also redeveloping the Lower Hill a la Isle of Capri. Like the others, he too has decided to go the celebrity figurehead route with not one, but two PR flacks. The Barden group has chosen former Steeler running back Jerome Bettis and also Motown legend Smokey Robinson. As far as figureheads go, this has to be the best of the bunch because Jerome Bettis could be elected mayor, governor and Supreme Being in Pittsburgh right now, and considering that Pittsburgh is essentially an oldies kind of town, music wise, Smokey would be a hit here. But Mr. Barden will have opposition from among others, the Pittsburgh Steelers organization who oppose the building of a casino on the North Side, and considering the amount of clout the Steelers have in this town, ESPECIALLY after winning a fifth Super Bowl, the Belden plan may the weakest of the three.

The Gaming Control Board has been making the rounds of the proposed casino site soliciting public opinion. They will be holding hearings so that the public as well as the casino groups can make their case.

Now, where do I stand on all this? As I said earlier, despite my being a Christian who believes that gambling is a waste of money and a fool's errand that will eventually beat the player, If an adult wants to blow his wad hoping that he makes the big score at the slots, than go forth. I'm not a moralizer, nor am I someone who wants to shove my beliefs down folks throats. I would like to see the casinos put a small percentage of their revenues aside to help Gambler's Anonymous and other addiction treatment groups to help those who can't help themselves. There will be those who will bet the rent money and the kid's college fund, but those are few and far between, and there are programs to help them. The potential for increased crime is also a sticking point. With casino comes the very distinct possibility that prostitution, robbery, domestic abuse, and other crimes will go up. Maybe with the extra revenues coming into the city, we'll be able to reopen the West End police station and hire more cops to fight the increase in crime. I just wonder if all the projected income figures these groups are touting are just airy promises.

The way these groups make it sound, Pittsburgh will be the next Atlantic City. Tourists will flock to Pittsburgh to gamble in our shiny new casinos. We'll have Las Vegas on the Mon An'at!! I hate to say this but people aren't going to come to PITTSBURGH to hit it big. Pittsburgh is not on the list of favored tourist spots right now, and having a slots casino won't increase the odds of it happening anytime soon, pun intended. The majority of the people who will be playing here are locals who'll no longer have to hightail it down to West Virginia to blow their cash, at least until The Mountaineer State decides to counter by introducing table games. Are their enough people in Pittsburgh/Allegheny County/Western PA who will form the gambling base that will provide the steady income these casinos will need to turn a profit? What happens when the newness wears off after a year? A casino that does not have a steady turnover of players is a casino that isn't making money. What assurance do we have from any of these groups that they will be here for the long haul even after the honeymoon period is over? Casinos have popped up like mushrooms on a warm summer night in towns all over the country and have disappeared just as quickly when the management couldn't find new gamblers to supplement the regular players. We can hope that the building of a casino will also spur development of entertainment and other types of businesses, which would attract more companies to consider relocating to Pittsburgh, but then the city government will have to make doing business in the city easier and more efficient, and Pittsburgh does not do efficiency well. There are a lot of folks betting the salvation of the region on the slots. For their sake I hope it all comes up cherries.
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