Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Why Many Northside United's Points Are Valid

Believe it or not, I do not just sit back and criticize. In private, I have offered many a point of strategy, assistance, philosophizing and the like, mostly to One Hill leadership* and rarely to Pittsburgh UNITED, mostly because they take their cues (erroneously) from One Hill leadership.

*And, for the record, when I say One Hill leadership, I am always excluding Bomani Howze, whom I believe is the only honest person with integrity on the Executive Committee.

I explained in an earlier post that I could not believe it when I heard Mark Fatla explain the contract they signed with Don Barden's Majestic Star Casino, which stated that there would be "no negative impact" from the casino industry being on the Northside and that Barden would pay for any negative impact proven to be caused by his casino.

Bruce Barron, President of "No Dice" wrote a rather stellar Op-Ed, that I must respond to, piece-by-piece. Barron writes:

Our nation's increasing propensity to pretend the dark side of gambling doesn't exist was on dramatic display at the North Side's New Hazlett Theater the other night.

The one-act play was billed as a North Side Leadership Conference forum on the social and economic impacts of the casino Don Barden plans to build some day soon between the Carnegie Science Center and the West End Bridge. The performance -- at least the scripted part of it -- was selective, to say the least. Of 36 slides in the conference's PowerPoint outline, 11 started with the word "Jobs!" and none mentioned problem gambling or its social consequences.

Wow, they must all take their cues from the same playbook. This is painfully familiar to what "Pittsburgh First" (the Pittsburgh Penguins, Isle of Capri Casino, Nationwide Realty and 'the community' - Tonya Payne's people, an organization which I chose to call "Hill District Last") kept dangling in front of the Hill District community on a near-constant basis. And they always come with semi-flashy powerpoints or DVD's.

Since Mr. Barden has offered the conference $1 million a year in "community benefits" donations -- or about one-tenth of what North Side residents can be expected to gamble away at the casino -- it seemed likely that this rosy view of gambling was a tacit part of the agreement. But the question period became surprisingly candid.

For the record, while it is extremely important to recognize that the demand for proper reinvestment is nothing new, it is only fair to Pittsburgh UNITED and the entire Community Benefits Agreement Movement that Mark Falta stop pretending as if this is a CBA. I think he has co-opted this language for convenience-purposes and to slight PU / Northside United; but there is supposed to be a distinct process and partnership with what we now call a "CBA" and it's more than a bit disingenuous on his part to refer to the NSLC agreement in this manner.

Executive Director Mark Fatla noted that, when the conference sought input from the 14 neighborhood organizations that comprise its constituency, the message was clear and consistent: The neighborhood groups didn't want a casino in their community and they didn't want the conference to endorse Mr. Barden's proposal no matter what he offered.

Well, that was smart. It's certainly nothing personal to Don Barden, who appears to be a stellar businessman with a lot of integrity and character (despite his chosen field of work), in the same way that it wasn't personal towards the Isle of Capri Casino company.

Unable to dangle the endorsement carrot, the conference nevertheless negotiated a monetary agreement with Mr. Barden and offered friendly testimony on its dealings with him to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

This is far more than what Pittsburgh First (Hill District Last) was offering. But, I won't begrudge the Northside Leadership Conference for seeking reinvestment because the Northside did not pass Act 71 and allow gaming into the State. Like many cities, we have all had to deal with this, particularly in light of our city's then-pending bankruptcy and the state's poor financial status.

But when it sought a contribution to offset increased public safety and addiction counseling costs, said conference board Chair Joe Lawrence, Mr. Barden's response was cool: "I already pay for those things at the tax office."

I have to say that, in many ways, Barden is correct. Pennsylvania has the highest level of taxes against the casino industry and it is up to the people (especially those who don't own property but will suffer from the negative effects of gambling) to petition their government to set aside funds to address the negative impact. It is not just the responsibility of the casino industry because people have free choice. Northside United must create a CBA with the City and County around these issues, in particular.

According to Mr. Fatla, the conference asked what it should do about these negative impacts on its community and Mr. Barden denied that his casinos cause any negative impacts.

I'm not so sure what would be so special about Don Barden's Majestic Star that there would be no negative impact. I just don't believe this because the casino industry, overall, negatively impacts the environment.

So the conference added to the agreement a paragraph stating that it could pursue compensation from the casino for any documentable negative impacts its presence should cause.
That paragraph might just prove historic should the conference's current lovefest with Mr. Barden ever turn sour, because many analysts foresee a day when the casino industry becomes as vulnerable to civil lawsuits as the tobacco industry. (So far only a few lawsuits worldwide by addicted gamblers have succeeded in court, but one activist state attorney general could change all that.)

I guess someone should have mentioned to the NSLC that it is very hard to prove that a casino caused direct harm to someone or a situation.

Barron is right about this. More and more people are suffering and the casino industry does not have many (or enough) regulations upon it. I do believe it will go the way of the tobacco industry and we'll see a ton of "truth" commercials in about ten years. Until that time, the nationwide honeymoon phase will continue; and I am unwilling to blame Don Barden for this national and international obsession. Human beings enjoy being self-destructive, don't we?

It thus behooves the conference to obtain solid baseline data on existing levels of problem gambling on the North Side, because gambling addiction typically doubles in the immediate vicinity of a new casino. With the social cost of each addicted gambler estimated at about $13,000, that's a $5 million- to $10 million-a-year tab the conference might be able to stick to Mr. Barden.

So true. But before and during that time, this is also very much the responsibility of the City and the State.

Ironically, had the conference taken its cue from the neighborhood groups and opposed Mr. Barden's proposal rather than cozying up to him, it might not have a casino to deal with at all.

I'm not sure about that, Bruce. The people in Philadelphia (CasinoFree Philly) are still fighting a very tough battle that is quite honorable but is still ongoing; and they have actual paid organizers and staff members at their disposal. If this same battle would have taken this long in Pittsburgh, the Isle of Capri's temporary casino on the Melody Lot site would have been opened for close to six months now. The fact of the matter is that for some reason, people are thoroughly enjoying giving their hard-earned money away. So, what do you do?

Instead, it laid down passively while vociferous Hill District opposition to Isle of Capri helped to make Mr. Barden's Majestic Star a winner.

As the organizer of such "vociferous Hill District opposition" (otherwise known as the Raise Your Hand! No Casino on the Hill Campaign), I will effectively take my bow with the entire community of folks here and across the nation who assisted us. However, I must remind everyone that the Hill's win is the City's win because the "Pittsburgh First" plan was the only one to place its Casino right within the street grid of our neighborhood and in our front yard. I am now pushing a request to make sure there is no casino in anyone's residential community from this point forward.

And let's be honest here: 99.9% of Pittsburgh never believed that Don Barden, an African American, had half of a chance to win the Category 2 slots license for the City of Pittsburgh. So, while Northsiders should have been more proactive, it was plain ole shortsightedness, lack of proper leadership, apathy and a healthy serving of racism that is the source of what is happening now.

Now the conference is dutifully holding casino job fairs to present Mr. Barden with a ready-made work force.

While enjoying its honeymoon with the casino, the conference has been fighting a rearguard action against a competing community organization seeking a place at the bargaining table. Twice the other night the conference forum moderator pleaded for civil discourse, asking speakers to "be a model for our children."

The raw emotions expressed at the "casino design" meeting are honest expressions of disgust, disenfranchisement and anger. I do hope, however, that Pittsburgh UNITED is not unfairly manipulating or exploiting the mostly Black, working-class and/or working-poor persons so upset at this point in time. For example, is it the most advantageous, at this point in time, to create a totally adversarial relationship with either Barden or the NSLC?

And on the flip side, one must wonder . . . how many Black people were in the room when this deal with the Northside Leadership Conference was made? And if there were any, how many of them represented the Black, working-class and/or working-poor from the Northside?

We must ask . . .

While Barron concludes:

Perhaps, at a time when gambling -- especially youth gambling -- is America's fastest-growing addiction, the conference should consider what message it sends to our children by overlooking gambling's well-documented social impacts and by portraying casinos as an honorable partner to be patronized.

Mmph. Strong words. Bruce Barron is president of No Dice, a Pittsburgh-area organization that opposes the expansion of legalized gambling in Pennsylvania ( And he's right that adolescent gambling is America's hidden epidemic.

America's gambling explosion and the passing of Act 71 has put us all in a very awkward position. I am not willing to lay this entire burden upon the shoulders of Don Barden; and, at the same time, it's very important for all of us to understand the negative impact of the casino industry, as well as the responsibilities of the City and State.

What I did in "Dr. Goddess Goes to Jail" was to introduce a character named "Betty" who, after being tossed in jail for observing civil disobedience (a criminal act I created in my play), shared a poem that moved her cellmates as well as the multitudes of folks in the audience who came to see our ensemble production. The poem was called "Confessions of a Slots Queen" and I'll share more on that later. It is, however, one of the most popular pieces in the entire production.

1 comment:

Schultz said...

"I suppose that the Republican challenger, Mark DeSantis, is just doing his job, opposing everything Ravenstahl does. Still, I find DeSantis' recent video-documented trip to the Hill District unsettling.

I don't know how long he was on the corner of Centre and Kirkpatrick explaining his plan for black entrepreneurs, but he should know that that corner is one of the drug dealers' dens. Further, if he really wants to be taken seriously, a serious meeting is required -- not just popping up and taking advantage of random passersby who shake your hand.

DeSantis has proposed a "micro-loan" program, in which black businessmen could get a $5,000 loan with no collateral. It's not a bad idea. But it is problematic that he cites his inspiration as a report from the Center for Race and Social Problems. That report concludes that African Americans living in this "most livable city" are the most disadvantaged in the nation. After reading this report (or at least the executive summary), DeSantis' financing tops out at $5,000 a pop? Amazing.

If all it takes to sound "progressive" these days is a willingness to meet people on street corners and offer micro-loans for mega-problems, then count me in for the next mayoral race. Sheesh."

I just read your story in the city paper regarding DeSantis's trip to the Hill. Did you bother to read the entire plan? No, you didn't, because he is offering a lot more than $5,000 in financing. S

ince I couldn't email you directly here are the details of his plan.

From the DeSantis for Mayor website:

Third, DeSantis will create opportunities for all Pittsburghers in every neighborhood and dramatically increase the number of minority-owned businesses and micro enterprises.

"Last week I met Walt Davis, who is a small businessman in Perry South. We talked about crime and public safety, but we also talked about jobs, about businesses, about bringing hope and opportunity to neighborhoods like Perry South, and Homewood, and right here in the Hill District," said DeSantis.

DeSantis proposes carrying out this plan in the following manner:

1) DeSantis will establish a micro-lending program and minority entrepreneur centers in city neighborhoods, where participants will be provided the opportunity to receive training, attend workshops and raise startup capital and micro loans for their businesses.

2) DeSantis will implement the lending program and entrepreneur centers through the Pittsburgh Minority Economic Development Partnership.

3.) This partnership will consist of corporations, non-profits, and foundations to start and fund the Pittsburgh Minority Economic Development Partnership. It will be modeled after the Philadelphia Development Partnership.

4.) Similar to the Philadelphia model, this program will contain a peer group lending and counseling program. Entrepreneurs can become members of peer groups with other minority and micro business owners. Those groups will provide peer counseling services to all group members.

5.) Peer groups will also oversee a micro loan program, with peer group members eligible to apply for loans from $500 to $5000 through the partnership’s capital fund. Individual members make loan requests through their peer group and the group as a whole decides whether or not to approve a loan.

6.) Finally, the Partnership will also have a Small Business Loan Program which will provide loans ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. This program will be available to entrepreneurs regardless of whether they are participating in a peer group. However, unlike the peer loan program, these loans will require a credit check and collateral, with loan decisions made by a Partnership business development consultant.

7.) In all, the Pittsburgh Minority Economic Development Partnership will provide the following:
Access to capital
Business skills training
Technology training
Internet strategy workshops
Business seminars
Business counseling
Mentoring & Networking opportunities