Doubling Down | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Doubling Down

A bank leaves, a casino comes ... and all we can do is roll the dice

What's the difference between a casino and a bank? A casino will stick around for as long as people give it their money. A bank isn't as reliable.

Or so we learned from the news that Mellon Bank is merging with the Bank of New York, and moving its headquarters to Manhattan. Pittsburgh, which has been Mellon's headquarters for generations, will now become its back office.

In many ways, the deal is no surprise: Mellon sold its retail banking branches in 2001, preferring to focus on higher-return businesses that made a merger more attractive. And Mellon has had talks with Bank of New York before.

Equally unsurprising is the response from local officials and civic boosters. In the past, they've boasted about the number of Fortune 500 companies headquartered here; now they tell us not to dwell on the fact that one is leaving. Don't fixate on the past, they say: Embrace change. It's the same thing Mellon officials told us back in the 1980s, when they presided over Pittsburgh's deindustrialization.

Back then, steelworkers protested the bank's policies by putting dead fish in its safe-deposit boxes. Today, there isn't even a branch office to protest in: Mellon has contracted out the work of dealing with grubby-handed customers.

And because Pittsburghers do remember the past, we'll respond with disgruntled resignation. In that sense, there's little difference between the bank's departure and the impending arrival of a casino.

On Dec. 20, the state's Gaming Control Board is slated to choose one of three casino developers to operate a slots parlor in Pittsburgh. But while the casino hasn't even been built yet, some Harrisburg politicians are trying to expand them.

Let's include table gaming, they say, before neighboring states do. And though the state has barely funded programs for treating gambling addicts, politicians are feeding another addiction: Thanks to legislation passed in Harrisburg last month, casinos will offer free liquor. Gov. Ed Rendell says we shouldn't be surprised: "Virtually every gaming operation around the world has this amenity," he noted after signing the bill. So why wasn't the free-booze provision in the original gambling law? Because Harrisburg feared public outcry?

They needn't have worried. The Mellon deal feels inevitable because it happened so quickly; the casino ruling feels inevitable because it's been happening for so long. Casinos are warping our politics before they're even built, but there's little public outrage.

One exception is in the Hill District, which borders on the site where one developer, Isle of Capri, intends to build its casino. After a long period of muted grumbling, residents are increasingly vocal about opposing a casino next door.

If Isle of Capri doesn't get the license, I suspect it will be because of the power of the other casino developers -- not because of objections from the Hill. But many Pittsburghers will resent the critics anyway, because Isle of Capri has promised to build a new hockey arena, free of charge, to replace Mellon Arena. (We'll soon be calling it "Bank of New York Mellon Corp. Arena," I guess. Which is almost reason enough to demolish it.) In exchange for that bauble, we're willing to gamble with the Hill District's future.

Maybe Isle of Capri will redevelop the surrounding area as promised, and maybe it won't. But just like Mellon's board of directors, we're not going to let local concerns interfere with a big payoff. Even City Councilor Tonya Payne, who represents the Hill and supports Isle of Capri, has accused her constituents of "extortion" for demanding more suitable investment in the Hill.

It's a strange charge: Is it wrong to try maximizing a project's public benefit? Isn't that sort of Payne's job?

Payne does have a point, however: It's late in the game to be making demands. The Penguins' desire to build a Hill District casino has been public record for more than two years. Yet local clergy and others have only been making their grievances public for the past few weeks. That's too late to rally the city behind them: Fortune 500 companies may no longer invest so much in us, but casinos give us the chance to exploit each other.

As with the departure of Mellon, the odds always favor the house. And the message from the powers-that-be remains the same: Embrace change.

Why not? Maybe we'll find enough of it to let us play the slots.

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