Thursday, January 10, 2008

How We Got Here to Begin With

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.


  1. $350 million in community development for the lower hill. Can someone tell me how many square feet are even in the lower hill??? How many dollars per square feet is that??? How many people live in the lower hill? Could we just split the $350 million among the residents evenly and let them decide individually what they should each do with the money?

    These are serious questions, I'm not being facetious.

  2. I can only assume some of that would have been put in big-ticket items on the prime 28 acres to which Barden was denied ... and then some would have gone in to the "fingers" into the community.

  3. Simply blown away, Bram. You've done some good posts before, but this one is simply fantastic. I found it enormously instructive. Even though I was living right there while all the events you discuss were happening. Even though I am a news and politics addict. Even though I was following things with what I thought was rapt attention. I still never put all the connections together like you did here.

    This post was an incredible public service. Or at least an incredible service to me. This post, all by itself, has moved me closer to convergence with your perspective on this matter.

    Really, mate. Good work.

  4. THAT'S what I was waiting for.
    I still haven't responded to the 2nd part of your comment char, but i'm stil planning on using it as a device.

    BY THE WAY, what do you guys make of this thread?

    Looks to me like some contractors and developers are asking the government for COLD HARD $$$$CASH$$$$$

  5. Hmmmmn. Check your facts on the committment side...though you may want to continue to demonize Don was Barden who committed first to the arena deal and the Station Square group who committed last.

    Either which way...the hill district community should be fully invested in this is so interesting how those with a certain kind of priviledge in America tend to throw temper tantrums when they get picked second.


  6. So, 350 million dollars disappeared because no one wanted to let Don Barden have any part of property around the arena? The Ravenstahl administration is willing to let 350 million dollars worth of investment just evaporate? Meanwhile, Ravenstahl said, during the campaign, that he was at every community meeting, he was in continuous contact with community groups, that the community groups were happy with his level of involvement. African American neighborhoods did vote for Ravenstahl in huge numbers, though I can’t quite figure out why. Ravenstahl now talks like a man who has found a new religion – stinginess – saying that not one dime of anyone’s money will be put in the hands of private citizens. Barden gets to save 350 million dollars and the city gets to renege on any promises it made by claiming the community groups are asking for things never promised and illegitimate anyway.

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  8. After thinking about it for a few hours, I think that I've come up with a way of stating my opinion that will sound far less problematic to everyone concerned.

    I think that all of us can agree that, no matter how many ministers, congregations, beauty parlors, Boy Scout troops, and community activisits are involved in the One Hill coalition, it could be far more powerful and persuasive if an elected official -- any elected official from the neighborhood -- was standing up there with the One Hill leaders at all of these news conferences and negotiating sessions.

    It's great that people are involved in a grass roots way. But if you combined that with support from the Hill's elected representatives, things would be even better. The elected official would automatically lend credibility to the effort, and would serve to keep the organization informed of what's happening in the halls of power. That would be far more potent than the self-selected citizens of One Hill all themselves.

    That sounds reasonable, right? Anyone disagree?

    In the end, that's really all I was trying to say. Having the elected officials -- as near as I can tell, every last one of them -- on the other side of the issue takes away all that additional credibility that they could have given the One Hill cause if they were on the same side of the table.

    Again, if Ms. Payne et al. are really leaning against the collective will of their legislative districts, then I hope like hell that someone from One Hill will stand for election next time around. Then the organization will be able to reap the benefits of the legislative support that they should have had from the very start.

    I also think that "Councilwoman Goddess" has an especially nice ring to it.

    When I say things this way, it doesn't sound nearly as divisive as my original comments. And it more or less amounts to the same sentiment.

    Does that work better?

  9. Councilwoman Goddess... Humm....

    We just elected a minister to city council.

    The ministers themselves are picked from above -- with the one vote that really matters the most. Calling.

    An elected official standing with the posse gives weight to some -- and takes away from others.

    Mr. Portis ran for that seat against Sala (and lost). I remember him as one of the guys who wanted to build the LOW SPEED MAGLEV from the mega parking garage at the top of the hill to the edge of downtown.

    With elections and elected officials and elected want-a-bes -- things get overly complicated at a blink of the eye.

    I just say, be careful for what you wish for.

    And, keep up the good fight while working on the issues. What matters more than who. And, a lot of PEOPLE are going to make a bigger difference working together.

  10. Troll(ey)rider,

    We do NOT want "cash" and after all that is said and done, I just truly resent your statement. We want better institutions that have a stronger infrastructure so we can have a sustainable community. That cannot possibly be hard for you to understand.

    Richmond, I tried to send about three responses over on the Burgh report blog but I kept getting a 'wait 20 seconds' response and was never able to submit. Lots of typing gone down the drain. In short, though, I apologized for calling you Richard (it was an honest error) and while I agree that elected officials are handy and helpful, please see my blog ( to get a blast from the past. We always had Jake Wheatley. Tonya Payne backstabbed all of us and stayed with the Mayor's firm upper lip and the Pens' (Morehouse's) arrogant stance and has not budged, except to say "I have always supported One Hill". Riiiiigggghht.

    For those who are unaware, One Hill was created *against* Wheatley and all the rest of us. But, we still support the cause because we live here, so we became two groups and remain active to this day. There is really nothing that One Hill has done, successfully, alone. And vice versa, after June 2007. It has taken the entire community. I don't believe One Hill represents the entire Hill District. I don't believe our group represents the entire Hill District. I DO believe that both One Hill and our group represent the BEST INTERESTS of the ENTIRE Hill District and that is where I stand firm.

    One Hill chose to cast its lot with Tonya Payne because Carl Redwood got mad at Jake and has old school beef with Sala, that he revisited upon our generation. I don't appreciate that; but I suppose we will deal with his errors at a later date. In the meantime, Tonya Payne and her supporters, with the exception of corrupting One Hill's process from the beginning, has provided little to the group except lip service and the passing out of flyers.

    So, I hear you about elected officials but Bill Robinson and Brenda Frazier have written letters of support. Jake Wheatley's is on the way and I would almost bet my next heartbeat that you will never get anything substantive in writing from Tonya Payne.

    Ed Heath: You hit the nail right on the head and I actually yelled at both Onorato and Ravenstahl at our April 2007 meeting because of how casually they treated the Barden promise / development rights issue. I told them that the city was broke and that THEY do not have $350 million to spare, so why did they think this was something to sneeze at, by robbing us of a willing investor in our neighborhood who has also demonstrated much more neighborly qualities (even with a CASINO!!!) than any of the other applicants?!! Onorato claimed his hands were tied and that's what sports teams were doing all over the country. Luke sat there silent. And then Onorato promised that something substantive could still come out of this, so they promised to allow for six months to engage in a CBA process. That was a hilarious meeting because Marimba Milliones also told them to "elevate the status of their conversation" because they all broke out in laughter when we mentioned Barden and his promise. Obviously, we didn't and do not find it funny at all.

    Senator Ferlo? Yeah, okay. He initially supported it (he's on the KDKA TV clip on my blog) but he's been entirely silent since---just like during the gaming scenario. So, thanks Senator Ferlo. Speak up anytime now . . .

    And I just have to stress that the CBA is MAINLY between the private developer and the community. The City and County are supposed to be the ones to fill in the gaps and ensure that it happens properly. So, Char especially, please, PLEASE stop telling people that we are asking the government to totally build and then guarantee us a grocery store. Indeed, my coalition didn't even ask for a grocery store because we knew this is how the conversation would go. Just give us the money. We know what to do with it. And a large chunk of it is ours, anyway.

    As for Councilwoman Goddess? I think that's probably one of the funniest titles I've heard all week. My neighbors have been asking me to run. Forgive me for saying it's a job I know I could do well but that I don't actually want.

    Unlike Tonya Payne, however, I would not run and then be complaining about how much I want for my job to end. She's just mad because she's been on the wrong side of essentially everything.

    Richmond, I firmly believe you will see a change in the next election; but I'll be damned if we're going to let someone continue to be a Payne in our behinds until then.