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Weak Suit 

A boneheaded move by a casino hopeful

Don't tell Kimberly Ellis that one person can't make a difference. She may not be able to stop a slots casino from being built next to the Hill District, but hey -- she's already been threatened with a lawsuit. And as we know from the movies, you're nobody in the gambling biz until you've seen the inside of a courtroom.

"Who knew standing up for something right and true would bring me so much attention?" Ellis says.

As you'll see elsewhere in this issue, the Hill District resident received a cease-and-desist letter from Isle of Capri, one of three companies competing for a state license to build a Pittsburgh slots parlor. The letter accuses Ellis of a "deliberate campaign to defame" the company, and threatens to "immediately commence legal action" if she doesn't pipe down.

I won't comment on the merits of Isle of Capri's legal claim, which was prompted by a false, but hardly incendiary, statement Ellis made in a letter to city council. But I will say this: Spreading misinformation and engaging in misdirected political activity -- even assuming that's what Ellis did -- happens every election year. It's a Constitutional right enjoyed by all Americans. Or at least all Americans who disagree with me.

Ellis' position on "Pittsburgh First," the booster group supporting Isle of Capri, is summed up by the signs she totes to community forums: "Pittsburgh First Means Hill District Last." No doubt that hurts people's feelings. IoC won hearts by promising to build the Penguins a new arena if it wins the license. That casino/arena complex, it pledges, will be part of a $1 billion development in the long-suffering Lower Hill.

Ellis is unconvinced. "It doesn't matter if there's a billion dollars in construction," she says. "Development is secondary to preventing a disaster."

Of the three casino bidders, only Isle of Capri's facility would be built in a residential area. If its proposal succeeds, Ellis worries, the Hill District will see firsthand the social ills that gambling can cause: increased crime and desperation, problem drinking, and so on. Few other neighborhoods, critics say, would volunteer -- or be asked -- to live next to a casino. In fact, the part of Ellis' letter that prompted IoC's threats asserted that a community group had fought the company elsewhere.

Isle of Capri says it was just trying to put a stop to misinformation, but its behavior will raise more doubts than Ellis' letter ever could have. Even Harrah's, the gambling Goliath for whom many people assume "the fix is in," doesn't act this heavy-handedly. Which is lucky for all those people who contend that "the fix is in."

It's also lucky for those who are criticizing Ellis. Some have contended she's part of a sabotage effort engineered by Isle of Capri's rivals. ("I've been asked point-blank if I'm being paid by someone else," says Ellis. "Frankly, I'd appreciate getting paid, because this is a thankless job.") Others say critics like her are wasting everyone's time. The Isle of Capri proposal has been a matter of public record since last December, after all, and the state is slated to award the license in just three weeks.

Those objections are, of course, mutually exclusive. Harrah's certainly wouldn't have waited until the 11th hour to torpedo a rival: Casinos don't profit by leaving things to chance. (Neither do their customers, generally.)

The second criticism has more merit. Hill District critics have been slow to speak up. The Penguins announced plans to build an Uptown slots casino in July 2004; drawings of the proposal were unveiled in December 2005. Yet it wasn't until Nov. 20 that Hill District church leaders held a press conference denouncing the plan. Ellis, meanwhile, went to Harrisburg with an armload of petitions opposing it last week -- half a year after the deadline for written public comments.

Ellis says she has "a negative reaction to those who criticize people on the Hill -- who have to work two jobs for our families -- for not being up on this." Fair enough. But if Isle of Capri succeeds, it will be partly because its opponents didn't have the lawyers and resources a casino can draw on.

So if critics are less than completely informed, the company shouldn't issue threats. It should thank God instead.

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