Casinos: The battle for a Community Benefits Agreement Moves to the North Side | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Casinos: The battle for a Community Benefits Agreement Moves to the North Side

On Sept. 15, Pittsburgh UNITED kicked off its second grassroots campaign in front of a bank of TV cameras. The foundation-funded economic-justice group vowed to strive for a Community Benefits Agreement for North Side residents from the casino's builder, PITG Gaming.

"We need everybody in this room to get five, 10 North Siders" to join the fight, says the group's campaign manager Khari Mosley to the 60 some residents who gathered at the Allegheny Unitarian Church.

But while organizers didn't mention it, PITG already had struck a bargain with neighborhood activists -- months before the casino even won the license. And that bargain, forged with the Northside Leadership Conference, may make it hard for Pittsburgh UNITED to achieve its goals.

Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) have swept across the country in recent years. The movement grew out of the disenchantment with the impact of major urban redevelopments: The gains reaped by developers, many community advocates argued, never filtered down to those living near the projects.

In an April 2006 agreement, PITG promised to invest in job training, and business- and housing-development programs that would benefit the neighborhoods surrounding the casino.

PITG spokesman Bob Oltmanns declined to say if the casino would make any further commitments. PITG's agreement with the North Side coalition addresses "issues of greatest concerns and importance" to the group's 14 neighborhood members.

Pittsburgh UNITED "ought to be talking to the Northside Leadership Conference if they're serious about doing something for the North Side communities," Oltmanns says.

Indeed, both Pittsburgh UNITED and Mark Fatla, the conference's executive director, confirm the two sides have held numerous discussions. Despite that, Fatla says the conference cannot and will not join the fight for more benefits: The conference is bound by the existing contract.

"It's a pretty broad-ranging agreement," says Fatla. "We don't claim that it's perfect. If they can negotiate for more, God bless them."

Surely there is more the group can agitate for, says Rachel Canning, Pittsburgh UNITED's lead organizer on the North Side. Canning says the standing agreement covers only the first three years of the casino's operations. The group is seeking "a commitment to invest in the community forever." But she also conceded that with the conference as a partner, PITG can ignore easily the group's fight, which so far it has.

Canning, formerly an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, also says that the existing agreement doesn't guarantee union jobs or jobs with benefits for North Siders. Besides, the total of $3 million promised by the agreement in community investments are "pennies" compared to what the casino would make (an estimated $350-400 million annually), she adds.

For Pittsburgh UNITED, more is at stake. The fight for a CBA on the North Side over the casino is the second test of the eight-month-old organization. Pittsburgh UNITED was borne out of a three-year, $500,000 grant jointly funded by local foundations (Falk Foundation, Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, POISE, and the Women and Girls Foundation), with a match from the Ford Foundation.

The group's first testing ground is the Hill District, where a coalition has been organized to negotiate with the Penguins for a CBA.

Canning is hoping that a show of numbers -- she says as many as 200 residents have pledged to get involved -- may aid the fight. The group will mobilize its members to appeal to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl at a Sept. 25 community meeting on the proposed casino.