In the beginning, there was Isle of Capri.
Isle of Capri was one of three candidates for the Pittsburgh slots license -- and the only one offering the Penguins and the City a $290 million arena, at their own expense.
The Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force endorsed the Isle of Capri proposal, due in large part to the degree of "community giveback" in the form of that arena.
Isle of Capri even wound up sweetening the deal: not only would it invest $290 in the new arena, but it promised a $350 million redevelopment of the Lower Hill and a $1 million-a-year reinvestment fund targeting the Hill and Uptown.
This really whipped up Pittsburgh into a fever of optimism about the arena, and about the casino -- look at all that economic development! In the Lower Hill! We like that!
Isle of Capri's claim to being the most advantageous candidate was strengthened. The plight of Pittsburgh's Hill District was made a political football from the very beginning.
Gov. Rendell must not have appreciated the idea of politicizing the retention of a sports team in order to influence the decision of the Gaming Control Board. Or he wanted Harrahs in Station Square to win. That's why he came up with Plan B.
Plan B was pretty simple -- the state would pony up the $290 million for the arena, and the winning casino operator -- whomever that would turn out to be -- must pony up the $350 million to get involved in Hill District redevelopment.
Since those were the figures Isle of Capri was offering, those were the figures the new applicants instantly "owed" to the community. Remember this. We wouldn't want to shortchange the community!
Harrahs jumped on the offer immediately -- anything to remain competitive. Interestingly, Don Barden was at first noncommittal, and only slowly came around to the idea.
Of course, if anyone questioned the $290 million of taxpayer monies going into this sports arena, by now it was standard to talk about the $350 million investment in the Hill.
Still a political football.
Lo and behold, due both to Hill District opposition to a neighborhood casino and to overwhelming traffic concerns, PITG Gaming and Don Barden won the license.
Who knew what Isle of Capri's $350 million worth of development would have looked like -- we have our suspicions -- but at any rate, what's past is prologue.
This is when things get exciting.
Smokey Robinson, a partner in PITG Gaming, called today's vote "one of the most gratifying things that's ever happened to me," although he didn't call it a miracle.
"First of all to be a minority. Don Barden is a wonderful man and he's black and to get a thing like that in a city like Pittsburgh is a wonderful honor."
"We plan on doing so many wonderful things for the city of Pittsburgh," Mr. Robinson said, also mentioning the plans for the Hill District. (P-G, Mauriello & Belko)
Smokey Robinson! Wonderful man! Wonderful things! Jerome Bettis acted as the face of Don Barden's Hill District as well. It must have made for an encouraging scene.
Some were hopeful that Don Barden, who has a license to open a casino on the North Side next year, might be interested in the Grill as part of a $350 million redevelopment package for the Hill District.
But Barden spokesman Bob Oltmanns said it's much too soon to discuss specific properties there. The Grill's location is 11 blocks away from Mellon Arena and the proposed new arena.
"Our objective is that our development should reach like fingers into the rest of the Hill and spur additional development," Mr. Oltmanns said. (P-G, Kevin Kirkland)
Okay so he's being cautious, but "reach like fingers into the rest of the Hill" and "spur additional development" sounded so well-considered, so progressive.
Then things fell apart. (Andrew Conte, Trib)
"The critical factor is who has the development rights," said Bob Oltmanns, Majestic Star's spokesman. "We're still interested in following through on our commitment to the Hill District."
Barden promised to spur a $350 million revitalization of the arena site with homes, offices and retail shops. Majestic Star believes it has first dibs on the site because it agreed to help pay for a new Uptown arena, Oltmanns said.
Barden was never going to get those development rights. The government infrastructure didn't feel like sharing.
The government infrastructure was content to see a dramatically smaller investment in community development, so long as it did not have to mess around with competing private interests. Remember that.
When they negotiated terms for the arena in March, Gov. Ed Rendell and local officials offered the Mellon Arena site to the Penguins for development. The team has 10 years to develop the land, starting with demolition of Mellon Arena for a parking lot.
Penguins officials must negotiate with Barden in "good faith" about the chance to "potentially participate in development rights." A team spokesman declined to comment.
Might be an excellent time to ask Barden about the Mayor's idea of good faith.
None of the terms require the Penguins to develop the site with Barden, said Don Kortlandt, general counsel for the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority. The agency agreed last month to give the Penguins the right to develop the site's 400,000-square-foot upper parking lot.
"' Good faith' negotiation is sort of a term of art," Kortland said. "They have to give a reasonable opportunity to strike a deal with you, but they don't necessarily have to accept any deal if it's unreasonable."
Don Kortlandt is the gentleman who alerted us to the galaxy of legal risks to which the URA is vulnerable, by the way. Continuing:
Oltmanns declined to say whether Barden would follow through with money for the Hill District if he doesn't get the development rights.
Wheatley said he believes it's unlikely Barden would want to put money into the neighborhood without the chance to build on the arena site. "I think Don Barden has a true commitment, but at some point, this man has gotten the short end of the stick," Wheatley said.
"A smart businessman would say, 'I promised those things as a total part of my application when the understanding was I had the development rights, but at this point, the conversation has changed.' "
As far as we can tell, that was the last time anybody mentioned Don Barden or this $350 million going into the Lower Hill or Any Other Hill.
The SEA and thence the URA awarded the Penguins sole rights to develop the land, which in turn the Pens are handling according to City and URA strictures on doing business -- that is, with open and imperious hostility towards its neighbors.
Meanwhile, everybody set down the football and discreetly backed away. Hundreds of millions of dollars for the Hill served as nothing but a sideshow for dueling casino bids, and for politicians justifying a huge subsidy for private interests.
In the end? Nothing.
It was at that very URA meeting, on which the Hill was denied any stake in the Mellon Arena land, that it was assured it would have the chance at City Planning to talk about investments in the community.
Now that we are at City Planning, One Hill is being asked to accept vague assurances "on good faith", and to pursue things later on down the road through the appropriate government infrastructure, like possibly the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Which is the exact same thing Pittsburgh's Hill District was told fifty years ago. Talk about being given the runaround.