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No Casino on the Hill
by BagLady Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006 at 11:11 PM

“We don't want no Casino on the Hill- Raise your hand.” These song lyrics came blaring out of speakers at Freedom Corner on November 3rd and 4th as song creator Dr. Goddess, Hill residents, and anti-casino activists gathered to protest the possible construction of a casino in the Hill District. This action was held in response to the Isle of Capri's proposal to construct a Casino in the Lower Hill.

Slots Casinos became legal when the Pennsylvania General Assembly approved gaming in the state, creating the Gaming Control Board in 2004. The Gaming Control Board will allocate licenses for 14 slots casinos, two which will be located in Philadelphia and one in Pittsburgh. Casino advocates are promising economic development, job opportunities, and community reinvestment. Three applicants are vying for the single license for the Pittsburgh casino. Two of the proposals are slotted for commercial areas- Station Square and the North Shore. The Isle of Capri proposal put forth by Pittsburgh First is the only one slated to be developed in a residential neighborhood- the Hill District.

The construction of the casino would not be the first controversial development to enter the Hill District. Once a thriving African American Cultural Center, the Hill District rapidly declined when thousands of homes and businesses were torn down to make room for the Mellon Arena. Casino developers promise that this urban renewal project will actually bring the positive development that arena constructors had promised in the 50's. The casino firm, Isle of Capri, has joined forces with the Pittsburgh Penguins and some members of the “community” in creating Pittsburgh First. They have promised 1 billion dollars in development of which 450 million will be used to build the gaming facility, 290 million will be used to build a new arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins and 1 million for Hill District community development.

Pittsburgh First says that the community has been involved in this process. However many Hill district residents still know little to nothing about possible casino construction in their neighborhood. Evan Frazier, Hill House Association President and CEO, and Marimba Milliones, Chair of the Hill District Community Development Corporation, formed the Hill district Gaming Task Force to inform the public about Gaming in Pittsburgh. They have hosted numerous forums with Hill District residents and stakeholders to discuss the effects of gaming from economic development, social, and residential standpoints. Frazier thinks Hill District residents must have their voices heard because “gaming and slots very often have an unbelievably devastating effect. When you look at other places around the country that have really faced those impacts... there are very negative results. Some of the things we are concerned about is that [gaming] drains resources from individuals, particularly low income residents and seniors in a very significant way...If you look at Atlantic City and see how there are casinos clustered in a certain area and then right outside that cluster reinvestment never occurred the way it was supposed to happen. I think that we see opportunity on the development side but risk as it relates to the social impact side. You try to weigh the two and then you have to answer the big picture question- do you want this in your community- is it going to be helpful or not.”

Many residents and stakeholders feel that it will not be helpful as evident by the fact that 62% of people who were surveyed at a gaming task force meeting said that they found the Pittsburgh First proposal unacceptable. Pittsburgh First does not agree with these findings. They say that there is strong community support as demonstrated by the wide turnout at a rally that they held downtown in conjunction with a meeting of the Pittsburgh Gaming Control board . Many believe that the large turnout wasn't due entirely to community enthusiasm as public housing residents of the Hill District's Bedford Dwellings admit to being offered $15 by Tony Eaves on behalf of Pittsburgh First if they would attend the rally. Additionally some residents said they were promised payment, but did not receive it. This led Tony Eaves to file a lawsuit against Reverend James Simms, head of Pittsburgh First for reneging on payment. Eaves lost the lawsuit while Simms is denying any involvement.

Dr. Goddess, formerly known as Kimberly Ellis, says these allegations really question the organization's name because “when you say Pittsburgh First the inherent assumption is that you are representing all of Pittsburgh, and that you want to put the city of Pittsburgh and the people of Pittsburgh, first. From what I have seen, the people on the Hill have been considered last and I think paying low income residents in Bedford Dwellings 10 to 15 to 20 dollars to participate in a rally is disrespectful to them as a community.”

Pittsburgh First has also been trying to garner support by passing out free t-shirts, dvd's and other promotional materials in the Hill. They are trying to sell people on their proposal with the “commitment to development on the Hill” with the one million dollar they are promising for community redevelopment. Marimba Milliones says the “one million dollar proposal is inadequate for social impact and even more of an inadequate number when you think of what [Pittsburgh First] is really proposing that 1 million dollars for; and that is development and social impact. It really begs the question where they came up with that number as an amount that is adequate for reinvestment for a community that will bear the brunt of gaming for the entire region.”

James Simms, head of Pittsburgh First says “The entire scope and breadth of the project is a significant reinvestment, not only in the Lower Hill but also in the Pittsburgh area. We think that it is important and I am not going to allow a piece of it, which is this reinvestment fund, to be peeled away as the only part of investment.”

Robert Goodman, author of the Luck Business: The Devastating Consequences and Broken Promises of America's Gambling Explosion, recently spoke at University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work about the large social service costs that accompany casino development. He estimates that legalized gambling could cost Pennsylvania $800 million annually if there is a 1 percent increase in compulsive gambling, at a social cost per person of $10,000.

Casino critics are saying that when casino's are placed in a low income area it's residents are disproportionately affected. The Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo conducted a phone study with 2631 people from 1990 - 2000 to see the connections between gambling problems, drinking problems, socioeconomic status and proximity to casinos. They found that people who live within 10 miles of a casino are twice as likely to be problem gamblers as people who do not have a casino within 10 miles of their home. They also found that “lower income people are much more likely to be problem gamblers than those who are more affluent.”

Shea Howell, a community activist in Detroit, and former co-chair of Detroiters United, a coalition that unsuccessfully fought the construction of casinos in Michigan has seen the affect a new casino had on the residents in the surrounding area. “When people are desperate, and a lot of Detroit is pretty desperate, people are willing to risk their last dollar in the hopes of making 10 or 20. That level of desperation is really what these casinos feed on. It is a desperation that fosters delusion and creates a kind of hopelessness and unreality about the crisis that is really destructive to city life.” states Howell. She also said that Detroit, as a city recovering from the collapse of the auto industry, was desperate for economic development, yet all the casino brought was empty promises. According to Howell “The casinos have not generated business around them. Instead they tend to draw people inside their walls and then nothing spills out over it. So the casino in Greektown has just about destroyed all of the family businesses and restaurants. Now there are just a few largely commercial businesses and the casino itself.” Detroit was also given one million dollars annually and Howell questions why “given the fact that [casinos] make millions upon millions every day it does seem that the give back is not very much”

Some people are saying that no “million dollar carrot” will make them accept a casino in the hill Kimberly Ellis says “there are many people who value the hill and want to preserve the community and I believe bringing a casino, in that area where we have already had struggles, will destroy the Hill. What happens is corporations make all kinds of promises at first because they want to win the bid but then all these unexpected situations arise and then they say 'oh we're so sorry we don't have enough money for this and that... As years go by what we see is a general neglect of the community regarding the casino.”

Renee Wilson, longtime activist and cousin of famous playwright August Wilson, says “The Hill needs jobs! Real jobs – not pie in the sky dreams. We need housing that people can live in and afford. We already have too many people playing the lottery hoping for that big hit. There are people who have lived in the Hill District for years who are not being heard. Slot machines will not bring any of this – it will hurt the community and destroy what is left of the Hill.”

In December of 2006 the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force will grant a license to one of the three casino firms. These three firms will continue to vie for the license, while Hill District activists continue to fight casino development in their neighborhood. Commenting on the development in the Hill, Kimberly Ellis says “We are trying to move forward and build a rich future and we don't need casino money to do it.”

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Casino on Hill tony Friday, Dec. 01, 2006 at 2:43 PM
Casino on the Hill Dale Thursday, Nov. 30, 2006 at 4:15 AM
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