Slots opposition gains support By C. Denise Johnson, New Pittsburgh Courier 11/29/2006 Grassroots campaign continues to grow in Hill District Those who thought a slots parlor on the Hill was a done deal have another thought coming. Opponents of the Isle of Capri‟s proposed casino plan continue to wage a grassroots campaign voicing their positions, catching the attention of mainstream media outlets and energizing Hill District residents. The opposition shifted into full gear earlier in the month when Hill District resident Kimberly Ellis began organizing and videotaping protests against the Pittsburgh First endorsement of the Isle of Capri‟s plan to link the slots development to a replacement arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins on the Mellon Arena site. Those initial efforts grew into an all-out campaign to stop gambling from encroaching on the Hill. After an alliance of Hill-based ministers held a press conference that attracted news coverage, which resulted in extensive coverage, the momentum of protest continued to build. Hill District councilwoman Tonya Payne has not changed her position of support for the Isle of Capri plan. Payne made a point to specify that her support was for the Isle of Capri and not Pittsburgh First. When asked if protests from Hill residents have made an impact on her position, Payne offered “no comment.” “If I have any changes of position, I will make them known directly to the community,” Payne said. Meanwhile, Rev. Dr. Johnnie Monroe, pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian, is girding up his forces to keep the slots off the Hill. “We want to get our message to the gaming commission,” said Monroe. “The timing is right and ripe; impeccable timing. We‟re against gambling period, but if it must come, we don‟t want it on the Hill.” This past Sunday, Ellis (aka “Dr. Goddess”) made her pitch to the congregation of Grace Memorial Presbyterian. “I thought she received an excellent response. The congregation of Grace is behind the effort to keep gaming off of the Hill,” said Rev. Monroe. Monroe shared that the ministers are receiving support for their position within Pittsburgh proper and across the state. “We‟ve received support from Philadelphia. Operation Transparency will be going to Harrisburg (on Dec. 12). The state is putting the casinos on the edge of poor communities.” The cleric support also includes the Pittsburgh Interdenominational Impact Network, led by Rev. John Welch of Bidwell Presbyterian on the North Side. Locally, before making a final stand at the Dec. 20 meeting of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, Monroe and company plan to have some quality time with the Pittsburgh-based board members, Sanford Rivers and Frank McCabe. Ellis, who received a cease and desist letter from attorneys representing Isle of Capri, has retained Paul Ellis (her brother) for legal representation. Ellis is currently president of the Homer S. Brown Law Association, which is comprised of Pittsburgh‟s Black attorneys. In a tersely worded reply, Attorney Ellis countered with a reminder of the constitutional right of freedom of speech and a promise of a suit from the American Civil Liberties Union should the Isle of Capri (and/or its agents) continue to threaten Dr. Ellis. She previewed plans for the next phase of protest. “On Wednesday we begin the “You Must No Know About Me” campaign. Elected officials will receive e-mail blast expressing disappointment of their support of Isle of Capri and containing a stern warning that „continued support, thereby ushering in deception of our communities, we will destroy their political careers.” In related news, the gaming control board release a summary prepared by the PricewaterhouseCoopers of projections on how much money on the state expects a Pittsburgh casinos. Isle of Capri was ranked last with a projected gross terminal revenue of $344 million; Forest City/Harrah‟s came in second with $426 million (both below the estimates provided to the board. PITG Gaming was first with $483.6 million (which was $31 million greater than their estimate). “It proves that Pittsburgh First is really Pittsburgh last and the Hill last,” Ellis observed. Slots operator decision viewed as victory for Hill District residents By C. Denise Johnson New Pittsburgh Courier 12/28/2006 Future development now a priority A slots operator has been chosen and in the eyes of some, the Hill District has been spared from history repeating. However, the immediate future looms like a giant question mark hanging over the iconic neighborhood as it savors the taste of victory in successfully keeping a casino off the Hill. Future development is on the minds of Hill District leadership. Marimba Milliones, who co-chaired the Hill District Gaming Task Force, views the selection of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board as a necessary first step in the rebirth of the Hill District. “We are excited with the opportunity to move forward with the $350 million commitment and a planning process for the Crawford Avenue area,” she said. The Hill District Gaming Task Force will continue its work towards implementing the community development of the lower Hill as a component of the PITG Gaming slots proposal. A VISION FOR REBIRTH—PITG Gaming offers this preliminary architectural schematic rendering of a future lower Hill as a hint of things to come. P ITG has committed to spending $350 million on the development. Although PITG‟s Majestic Star casino will be built near the Carnegie Science Center and Heinz Field, the gaming operator has pledged $350 million towards redevelopment of the lower Hill, as well as contributed monies toward the construction of a new hockey venue for the NHL franchise. “(The task force‟s) main focus was to make sure that Hill got redevelopment commitments from all three entities vying for the license,” said Milliones. “We can now focus on tourism as an economic engine.” “Although the gaming issue stimulated additional coalition building around the casino on the Hill proposal, it was also a catalyst to spur a new revival on the Hill,” said Milliones. “We‟re now poised to have substantial discussion about development on Crawford, Centre Avenue and the Herron Avenue corridors,” she said in anticipation of talks with PITG gaming. Kim Ellis agrees that reclamation of the Hill culture should be a priority. An ardent advocate for the preservation of the Hill District history and culture, Ellis was disappointed with the demise and demolition of Eddie‟s restaurant to make way for a new library on the Hill. “Eddie‟s Restaurant was closed without fanfare and it was a big piece of the community‟s history,” she offered. Ellis says the eatery served as the backdrop as her uncle August Wilson wrote “Two Trains running.” Ellis (aka “Dr. Goddess”) views the selection of PITG as a victory. “We won‟t have to deal with a casino on the Hill. It was a clear victory and with Barden as the operator, it‟s a double victory. Instead of a casino, the Hill gets development!” Ellis plans to keep her grassroots “Raise Your Hand” campaign going. “There are many other issues to address, such as the Oak Hill situation,” she stated. “We got to make sure the city follows through on its promise of affordable, mixed- income housing.” Ellis responded to allegations of outside influences at work behind the scenes of her recent demonstrations that she organized. She says she funded the effort out of her pocket and was abetted by small individual contributions from Hill residents and sympathizers whose donations covered rental for sound equipment. “It is disrespectful, an insult to our intelligence, to our humanity to suggest anyone from the outside got us to „rise up‟ for money,” she indignantly said. “We didn‟t see the Isle of Capri plan as a salve or balm of history, but as a repeat.” For Rev. James Simms, the selection of PITG Gaming as western Pennsylvania‟s sole slots operator brings an end for what has been a tumultuous year. Simms sees the aftermath of the decision as “yet another missed opportunity for jobs and development due a „disconnect‟ from the Hill residents.” “Pittsburgh First arose from an effort to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh,” said Simms, who was an employee of Pittsburgh First. “When Isle of Capri approached us with a plan to build a new arena without public funding as a part of their gaming proposal, (Pittsburgh First) signed up.” Simms saw the inclusion of a monetary contribution and development on the Hill as a plus, particularly in light of a harsh reality offered by Simms. “I don‟t see people lining up to develop the Hill.” Simms also lamented the missed opportunities for Pittsburgh First to meet with Jake Wheatley, a Hill resident who represents the district in Harrisburg. Simms says Wheatley was solicited on several occasions to provide guidance and feedback, or to directly voice his concerns, but he never responded. Rep. Wheatley, whose district includes all three proposed slots casinos, released a statement congratulating Barden, and also reiterating that he wanted the best for his constituents out of the process. “I‟d like to congratulate the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board for its hard work and dedication in this process. I also appreciate the work of the other applicants involved in this process. Regardless of my difference of opinion, all three applicants wanted to do something significant in the city of Pittsburgh, so I appreciate their vision. “At the same time, I am looking forward to the opportunity to bring significant investment into the region that will have major implications for several parts of my district—the North Shore, the Hill District and Downtown. Therefore, I congratulate Don Barden and Majestic Star for a wonderful application and I look forward to working with the county chief executive, the mayor and other leaders to make sure a new arena is built, the Pittsburgh Penguins are able to stay in Pittsburgh and that the promises of opportunities become a reality of opportunities for all parties involved.” Regarding the selection of PITG Gaming, Simms commented, “Mr. Barden will have his hands full with the North Shore development.” A Wider Arena You're not the only victim of government negligence, Mario By Dr. Goddess (Pittsburgh City Paper 22 Feb 2007) So let me get this right, Mario Lemieux: You tied the future of the Penguins to a casino operation, Isle of Capri. You sought to build a Hill District/Downtown casino that would have constructed a new hockey arena but would also cause great negative social effects for those who live, work and play nearby. Now that your plan has failed, you want government officials to give you just about everything you wanted anyway, except the casino? In an effort to appease you and the fans, elected officials started offering concessions. But then you whined about wanting development rights to a larger area -- an area you previously tried to zone out for Isle of Capri and the new arena? The Penguins have (literally) played in the Hill District for over 40 years, without offering anything substantial to the community. But the moment you see a lucrative deal that allows you to "stick it" to all of The Men you feel have disregarded you, you seek to literally and figuratively siphon off the Hill once more. In the whole discussion, I never heard or read you utter one word of empathy or understanding about neighborhood concerns. Don Barden, who won the slots license, has offered to redevelop the Lower Hill. But now you're demanding development rights, and balking at the very idea of sharing control. How can you justify assigning development rights to the Penguins, a team that has demonstrated no sincere regard for its neighbors? It's amazing you feel so entitled. What's even more amazing is that you reportedly agreed to pay Isle of Capri $10 million if they did not win Pittsburgh's slots license. And now, officials say, you think the rest of us should pay for your comedy of errors. You're not the only one who didn't get anything directly out of slots parlors. Gambling revenue is supposed to bring property-tax reductions, but the 72 percent of Hill District residents who don't own property will get no relief. Had you consulted with Hill residents, we could have told you that putting a casino in the front yard of a primarily African-American working-class community was a bad idea. We have enough problems to deal with. Indeed, we could have told you a casino would be perceived as extraordinarily opportunistic and callous. "Next time," as my favorite caveman character states in the GEICO TV ads, "do a little research." Then again, maybe you did. Since gambling money will apparently be used to build a new arena, and since African Americans are four times as likely to become problem gamblers, we will actually be paying off an even larger portion of your bill. What will be the benefit for us -- those who stayed in Pittsburgh, when the rest of the folks were fleeing to suburbia? Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Executive Dan Onorato are bargaining away development rights, but where are the meetings with the Hill residents next door? We should have significant input as to who gets the rights to our neighborhood and its borders. This is public land and, in case our elected representatives have forgotten, we are the public. No taxation without representation! Mario, you purchased the Penguins seven years ago, saving them from bankruptcy. Arguably, you should have been given a new arena back then. But your "bad fortune" still finds you in the pile of millionaires. Meanwhile, people much less fortunate also have needs that must be reconciled with Pittsburgh's sordid history -- a history that dates back 50 years or more. A history that includes razing much of the Hill to build the arena in the first place, and then building nothing above Crawford Street. You can't be held accountable for all the mistakes of the past, but that's the thing about history: You inherit the sins of your fathers because you also inherit their bounty. For decades the Penguins lived off the fruit of someone else's pain, someone else's displacement. If you don't want to share development rights, you're seeking to block Barden from doing what your franchise failed to do for 40 years. The residents themselves have no equity in the development. So what does the Hill get now? There must be a reckoning! Dr. Goddess says: "Thou shalt want for thy neighbor what thou wantest for thyself." Dr. Goddess is the alter-ego and onstage persona of Kimberly Ellis, a community activist, performance artist and academic.