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Pittsburgh Gambling Casino a Stacked Deck 

A bad deal all around

I've never understood why people play electronic slot machines. Sure, maybe the thing is randomly selecting cherries … but then again, maybe it's programmed to give you lemons. Computer gambling reminds me of a game I once played with my brother: "I'm thinking of a number; can you guess what it is? 4? Sorry, you lose." Even he gave up after awhile.

These days, though, I'm not just having doubts about the slot machines coming to Pittsburgh; I'm wondering about the process to pick which casino company will offer them. Too much of that decision is happening inside a black box, tucked inside a shiny exterior. We're assured the machine is fair, but despite all the public hearings being held, you can't really see for yourself how it operates.

Take newly minted Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's recent letter to the Pittsburgh Penguins. When he was a city councilor, Ravenstahl favored slots hopeful Isle of Capri, which promises to build the Pens a new arena if it wins a slots license. Since Ravenstahl became mayor after Bob O'Connor's death, though, he's been urging the Penguins to support "Plan B" — a proposal to use gambling revenue from the winning casino if Isle of Capri loses.

Ravenstahl's supporters say he's just being prudent. He may want Isle of Capri to win, but as mayor he has to find options if they lose. To skeptics, though, Ravenstahl's position looks like more proof that "the fix is in," that the game is rigged on behalf of Harrah's — the casino giant proposing a slots parlor for Station Square. Station Square's owners, the Ratner family, have been big-dollar contributors to Gov. Ed Rendell, and Harrah's is backed by numerous other local power-brokers.

Rendell and others reject such doubts. "Anyone who thinks the fix is in hasn't looked at the legislation" to award the licenses, Rendell told me last week. The choice will be made by the appointed Gaming Control Board, he points out — and Rendell only picked three of its seven members.

Still, Ravenstahl's shift illustrates a disturbing trend. There's lots of public and political support for Isle of Capri … but it always seems to get more tepid the closer you get to the center of power.

In May, for example, the city's Planning Department released a 135-page "Analysis of Proposed Casino Developments." The report scored each casino bid on dozens of categories — traffic access, building aesthetics, job creation, etc. — and multiplied that score by the "weight" assigned to each category. (For example, the report gave "visibility" — the casino's presence in the skyline— a weight of 4. Since Isle of Capri got a ranking of 3 in that category, it earned 12 points.) Harrah's came out with 387.9 points overall, well ahead of the 316.7 polled by Isle of Capri and the paltry 274.1 posted by Don Barden.

Those numbers — calculated to the first decimal place, even — sound precise. But relying on them is like using someone else's dice: You should check to see if they're loaded.

For example, while visibility got a weight of 4, "provid[ing] meaningful service-sector job training" got a weight of only 0.5. Mathematically speaking, how a casino looks was eight times as important as the skills it teaches employees inside it.

That might sum things up for architects. But I'll bet it doesn't add up for the city's jobless.

In fact, while Penguins fans won't want to hear this, Isle of Capri isn't universally popular either. Within days of the City Planning report, a group of Hill District activists released its own admittedly arbitrary rankings — and Isle of Capri finished last.

At a community forum in May, the Hill District Gaming Task Force polled nearly 100 people about which casino proposal they favored. Fully 60 percent found Isle of Capri's proposal "unacceptable." Three-quarters of those surveyed supported Barden, the lone African-American bidder. If the Isle of Capri proposal wins, some in the Hill District will no doubt feel "the fix is in" too. Many in the Hill, after all, still resent how their community was eviscerated by the first Penguins arena.

Already, Barden attorney Kevin Brobson has complained his client had less than a week to answer the city's lengthy request for information. The city's report, Brobson argued in a May 30 letter to the Gaming Board, was "without a proper factual basis."

But no matter who wins the casino lottery, a lot of other Pittsburghers will feel swindled too. Just think how we'll feel when we start playing the machines.

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