Reaping What is Sown: Slots in Pittsburgh #3

(Another species on the Pittsburgh endangered list: Young People. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.) There has been relatively little movement on the casino front in Pittsburgh since the beginning of 2007. But that doesn't mean the fiasco that is Slots Parlor Gambling in the Steel City doesn't continue. The arena/Penguins situation alone has fueled enough drama to satisfy anyone looking for controversy, and on Sunday, the Post-Gazette ran two very interesting articles relevant to the slots issue.

The first article, by Gary Rotstein, "Casino dreams not paying off in Gary," might seem like some sort of filler piece meant to curb the state-wide enthusiasm for this nonsense. However, the subhead of the piece is far more telling. "Although Barden's development hopes haven't panned out, he still gets high marks from officials." That would be Don Barden, the man who won the Pittsburgh slots license, and the development is a two-riverboat casino operation in Gary, Ind., on the coast of Lake Michigan. It's his "biggest casino investment," according to the article. (Until, that is, the North Shore casino opens for business.)

The story is, more or less, a puff piece defending Barden as a casino and business owner. Despite running two casino boats that are losing money. Despite a proposed $125 million redevelopment plan for the land surrounding the casinos that has been eight years in coming. Despite catering to low-end gamblers almost exclusively. Apparently, if a reader is to believe the article, everyone in Gary is to blame for things not moving with and around the casino except for Barden. Politicians are slow. Government is stubborn. Even Donald Trump, who owned one of the two Gary casino boats, takes some of the blame. And when all is said and done, there isn't any more to throw at Barden. He operates clean, courteous casinos, and, gee whiz, won't that be great for the North Shore?

The other P-G article is for more insidious. Columnist Bob Smizik offered this scintillating piece of opinion: "Pittsburgh still great with or without the Penguins". According to Smizik, it doesn't matter if the Penguins leave Pittsburgh (he thinks it's inevitable they will stay). The Steelers will be here, so will the Pirates, and Pitt athletics (especially football and basketball) get enough coverage already that they could easily step into the empty skates of Pittsburgh's third national sports franchise.

On top of that ludicrous notion, Smizik calls out what he has deemed the "Media Friends of Mario," or "MFOM," people he sees int he media defending Mario Lemieux and his seven-year push to get a new arena in Pittsburgh. Apparently, Smizik feels so annoyed that these MFOM are so vocal in their opinion that the Penguins should get a new arena that he feels it necessary to go as far as to say that Pittsburgh will be fine if the Penguins leave. He thinks it's ridiculous to buy into the MFOM claim that, if the Penguins leave Pittsburgh, the city will become a one-horse sports town, a la Green Bay or Syracuse. (I guess if Syracuse is called a one-horse sports town, then NCAA Division I football and basketball teams can qualify as national sports franchises since Syracuse has no national sports franchise to speak of.) Smizik's retort to the MFOM claim is that Los Angeles seemed to get by OK since losing (and gaining and losing) a/an NFL team(s).

Take a minute to process that. LA is OK, therefore Pittsburgh will be, too. Does that sound completely ridiculous and so far removed from reality as to be scary that someone of coherent thought could make it?

Yeah, I thought so, too.

Pittsburgh is not LA. There is no entertainment industry, no tourism industry, no national appeal, to draw people here over and over and over throughout the year. LA is one of the largest cities in the world, and it's number two in size in the US. LA can absorb losing an NFL team because the city doesn't need it and, frankly, didn't want it. They have enough to fall back on, both in sports and out of it, that this is a non-issue. Not so in Pittsburgh. The Penguins are a draw, both for people in Pittsburgh and outside of it. The young talent (Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury, etc.) amassed in that nasty old dome are garnering attention across the country and throughout Canada. Students in Pittsburgh have been a major reason why the team is operating at nearly 96% capacity, one of the strongest attendance marks in the NHL. (There was a story in the P-G about this, too.) The Penguins are bringing money into the city, generating interest in it, and giving the city's old facade a much-needed power wash.

If the Penguins leave Pittsburgh, the money will dry up and won't be made up under any scenario the out-of-touch Smizik can concoct. Interest in the city will disappear faster than you can say, "Bob Smizik is crazy." And the impression that there is a vibrant, thriving youthful population in the city will die faster than those that make up the majority of the city's population base.

This column is the height of irresponsible, misinformed journalism. There is an entire section of Pittsburgh's population that follow what pundits, columnists, and radio talk show hosts that make a living hawking half-assed opinions about the city's sports teams and personalities. And for those people, what these talking heads say/write/pontificate is gospel. Undoubtedly, there are people in Pittsburgh right now who have read Smizik's column and have said, "Damn, he's right. As long we got the Steelers, everything will be OK."

For Smizik, an old man with a cushy job and with little to lose by the Penguins leaving town, reinforcing Pittsburgh hegemony (old people good, young people bad) is his job. So for him -- and others like him throughout the ranks of Pittsburgh journalism -- the last lines of his column is undoubtedly true: "Here's hoping the Penguins stay, and they almost surely will. But, if they leave, life will go on and go on quite well." For everyone else, life will go on, but it will be miserable. All the gains made over the past 10 years to pull Pittsburgh out of the 1950's will be for nothing if the Penguins leave. Relying on slots machines isn't a long-term solution to the problems the Penguins leaving will create.