Dr. Burgher on the casino, the Penguins, and the future of Pittsburgh

My initial reaction to the news that Majestic Star Casino, and not Isle of Capri, had received the casino license was predictable – I was annoyed. I had hoped that IoC would win the casino, build the arena, and we would all live happily ever after. The decision in PITG’s favor reeked with the stench of political patronage and back scratching. Three issues jumped out at me immediately:

· PITG owner Dan Barden allied himself with incoming state House speaker Bill DeWeese nearly a year ago; Deweese was Barden’s guest for Super Bowl XL. Once the Harrah’s/Forest City plan (which had connections with Governor Rendell) lost favor because of Harrah’s impending buyout, the Barden-DeWeese connection became the strongest direct political alliance of the three proposed Pittsburgh casinos.

· Following the announcement, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato did some of his own politicking. Onorato “said the choice of a North Side location shows the need for the Port Authority’s North Shore Connector. Under the plan, which has drawn some criticism, the light rail line would be extended under the Allegheny River to the North Side.” To say that the North Shore Connector has faced “some criticism” is a huge understatement. The project, which is yet to commence, has been plagued by public disapproval and an ever-increasing cost estimate that is already north of $400 million.

· The third noticeably fishy political component to PITG’s win might be the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The state wanted one of the casinos to be awarded to a minority-owned business. Mr. Barden had the only minority-controlled casino proposal. (I am not trying to turn this into a race argument, but from my experience with the federal government, I can confidently say that promises to support minority-owned and women-owned businesses are taken very seriously. The federal government has hundreds of pages of guidelines describing when federal employees and federal institutions are required to purchase from minority-owned businesses.)

Upon further review, I realized that my initial reaction, as well as the reaction of many other IoC supporters, might have been hasty. Certainly my qualms about the political nature of the licensing process were well founded, however I would be delusional to think that IoC or Harrah’s could have won the license without significant political pull. In fact, one of IoC’s primary failings may have been a lack of a strong political backer who could have bent some ears in Harrisburg. IoC relied on Mario Lemeiux’s star power and a large show of public support; there was not a strong voice in Harrisburg lobbying for IoC on a daily basis the way that DeWeese could shill for Majestic Star.

I also reconsidered how the Pittsburgh media had portrayed the competitors for the casino license. Both newspapers generally touted IoC as some sort of perfect hybrid between serving the state needs (we’ll get to those in a moment) and helping the Pens. Majestic Star received the least publicity, and was often mentioned in passing as the third horse in IoC and Harrah’s two horse race. The implication of such slanted coverage is obvious: the average person does not know as much about the Majestic Star plan as IoC. To go a step further, we were also not involved in any of the Gaming Control Board hearings. We do not know the nitty-gritty of each proposed casino; presumably the Gaming Control Board knows and analyzed the pros and cons of each proposal. Most people following this story – myself included – have followed this basic story line: IoC equals new arena.

My point is this – after several hours of pondering the casino decision, I realized that I know less than I thought I did. Much of the details of the casino proposals were hidden behind stories about the Pens, the new arena, public protests in the Hill District, etc. Therefore, any opinion I have about PITG receiving the casino license is biased and at least partially uninformed. I cannot, in good conscience, weigh in with a definite ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on the issue right now. But since so many are angry about the snub to IoC, I would like to play devil’s advocate and throw out a few thoughts in favor of Majestic Star:

· First and foremost, Majestic Star’s location is the best equipped to handle the extra traffic. It sits directly off of 279, has easy access to the south hills and west end via the West End Bridge (which is being renovated soon), is close to route 65, and will soon have a subway station nearby. Harrah’s Station Square site was the least able to handle excess traffic (Carson St. is bounded by the river and Mt. Washington – it can’t get any wider). IoC’s site in the Hill District also sits near a train station and the Veterans Bridge, but traffic around the site would probably interfere with downtown traffic on surface streets.

· Majestic Star’s riverfront location mirrors the two sites chosen in Philadelphia, and continues the trend of reclaiming Pittsburgh’s waterfronts. Perhaps the Gaming Commission was aiming for a unifying theme among these casinos.

· Majestic Star also adds to the growth of the North Shore as an entertainment destination. Think of it this way: you increase the number of people shopping, eating, etc., downtown by having more people live there, not by opening stand-alone venues. With the casino on the North Shore, that area becomes a destination for ‘special’ entertainment — sporting events, gambling, and the proposed amphitheater – in the same way that the South Side is a destination for bar hopping.

· Majestic Star’s proposal included more slot machines than IoC. It is important to keep in mind the primary goal of the slots law – property tax reduction. More slots machines mean more potential revenue, and therefore a greater tax reduction. Somewhere along the line, the Pens and IoC tried to hijack the slots law for their own benefit. Surely this angered some of the politicos in Harrisburg, especially those who might have to go back to their constituents in Scranton or Hazelton and explain why the casinos are helping to fund an arena in Pittsburgh, which was not one of the goals of the original law.

The primary fallout from the casino decision is the possibility that the Pens will leave Pittsburgh for Kansas City or Ontario. (Though I don’t see how adding a third sports team to KC, which is smaller than Pittsburgh, can work in the long term.) I have mixed feelings about losing the Pens. On one hand, I am an insane optimist, and I will not give up on the city or state to put together a realistic ‘Plan B’ until the moving trucks are loaded. The NHL seems to want the Pens to stay in Pittsburgh as part of an overall effort to promote an image of stability. We also know that Mario will not move the team on his own, and will need to find a buyer before any moving plans are made. That means that there is a time frame available for negotiating a new arena deal, and some of the groundwork is already in place. Given this evidence, I refuse to believe that IoC’s loss definitely means that the Pens will be moving.

On the other hand, I am reevaluating my opinion on sports teams (and I am presenting this opinion because the number of ‘the sky is falling’ blog entries need to be balanced by something). Like Humvees and Vuitton bags, professional sports teams are status symbols. In particular, pro sports are important status symbols in the old-guard cities of the northeast. And like most status symbols, pro sports teams add less to a city than their image implies. Consider New York: tourists go to Manhattan to see the sights and shop, not to Jersey to see the Giants.

The status of sports teams seems to be fading in some of America’s ‘new economy’ cities. Seattle is losing the Sonics this year, with nary a protest. Raleigh, NC and Portland, OR, considered two of the finest up-and-coming cities in America, have two pro sports teams combined. In fact, Portland passed at the chance of acquiring the Expos recently. The idea that pro sports teams are somehow correlated with a high quality of life is disintegrating as crumbling, older cities maintain their traditions and leagues remain reluctant to expand into too many new markets.

Losing the Pens would be a blow to the city’s image both internally and abroad. But would it change life for most Pittsburghers? Could you imagine if PPG decided to close shop because the Pens left town? That would never happen. The thought would never enter anyone’s mind.

Keeping the idea of pro sports as a status symbol in mind, I think that we need to focus our attention in more constructive directions.

PITG will be building a casino in Pittsburgh. If an arena deal can be reached, that will be wonderful. But it is imperative that steps are taken to maintain public safety near the casino, and that the tax money collected from the casinos is properly redistributed throughout the state (and not lost into the pockets of bureaucrats). The casino sits on the riverfront, and should be held accountable as a good steward of the environment. It would look silly to have the casino polluting the water and air across the river from the new crop of Green buildings, including the convention center and PNC’s new building.

The city of Pittsburgh made two major announcements last week: the city will buy back the tax liens on over 10,000 blighted properties, and the city schools will offer college tuition help to any students who attend K-12. The first item could help to revitalize neighborhoods and reduce crime. The second is downright progressive; it’s the kind of thing that you read about happening in California, not Pittsburgh.

At the end of the day, a host of issues – crime prevention, job creation, Pittsburgh Public’s college promise, and many others – will trump the Pens when it comes to improving the quality of life in Pittsburgh (or any city, for that matter). Losing a sports team is no fun, but to treat it as the end of the world is a narrow and uninformed view. Ten years from now, Pittsburgh will be judged on how well it handled the casino addition and many other issues, but not on the fate of the Penguins.