The Rivers Casino is in Pittsburgh’s North Shore neighborhood. It’s right across the street from Heinz Field where the Steelers play, and a few blocks from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball stadium and a science museum. In between are acres of parking lots, a block of new bars and restaurants, and new parks along the Ohio River that separates the neighborhood from downtown. Once inside the casino, the sights and sounds are like any other, slot machines flashing and clanging, dealers laying down cards for black jack and gamblers tossing dice at the craps tables. But there is also something you don’t see much of in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. The Rivers Casino has large banks of windows allowing gamblers to see that there is a world outside with other attractions to visit. This is not the traditional windowless building within expensive food and free drinks – factors that can strangle existing restaurants and bars on the outside. Rivers Casino General Manager Joe Barrett says selling the casino plan to Pittsburgh’s entertainment establishment was not that difficult.
Pittsburgh embraced casino as a job generator
Barrett: “I think it’s a matter of grassroots, just getting out there and shaking hands, introducing yourself, talking about how we can help each other’s business out. Whether it’s incentives to come over, whether it’s from the sports venues or the hotels, incentives for their guests to come over, and it’s reciprocal as well. So we’ve been able to shake a lot of hands and talk about how together we can improve the economy and grow our businesses, and we have some great relationships with other businesses owners in Pittsburgh."
Niedermier: "Was there much resistance when the casino was being planned?"
Barrett: "Not much. I think at that time we know what was happening with the economy, so there was some excitement about job opportunities, tax revenue growth, community involvement. Even the naysayers, as few as there were, they’re seeing that there fears were not justified, they’re seeing that it’s have a positive impact on this area."
Niedermier: "What has the casino meant for employment here in Pittsburgh?"
Barrett: "When we opened in 2009 we had about 800 employees, we have 1900 employees now. Who else is growing jobs like that? Everyone else is trimming back, the revenue side isn’t quite there, they’re looking at the expense side, they’re trying to do more with less people. Quite the opposite at Rivers Casino. We’re growing, we’re expanding. The banquet room is proof of that, the increase in table games is proof of that.”
Barrett says the Rivers Casino attracts about four-million people a year. Just down the street from the casino is a block of new bars and restaurants. One of them is “Jerome Bettis’ Grill 36,” owned by the former Steelers star. Frankie Grandstaff is the manager.
“From what I’ve seen, it brings people to the North Shore. We’re such an event driven restaurant, we have the concert venue, Heinz Field, P.N.C. Park, the casino and the science center," he says. "So all of those combined drive our business to where it is now.”
Hotels, restaurants and the casino work together to spur business
The casino has nine of its own bars and restaurants, plus live entertainment and shopping. But, like Cleveland’s casino, there is no hotel. That was good news to Rebecca Lazeration who manages the Priory Hotel a few miles away. The small, 25 year old hotel, that was once a Catholic church and monastery, works with the casino.
Lazeration: “People can come here and get on of our standard queen rooms, and they can get $50 in food and beverage vouchers and the casino donates $20 in play vouchers to us, and we give guests a bottle of champagne and some lottery tickets. And we’re about 2 miles from the casino, they can go there and have a great time, have a wonderful dinner, and come back and stay with us.
Niedermier: "Where the casino was being planned, was there a lot of discussion between Pittsburgh hotel and restaurant owners about how the casino would interact with existing entertainment venues?"
Lazeration: "I think there’s always talk about how they’re going to interact, and I think Pittsburgh is great in that you want to keep everything local and work together as business to keep that camaraderie that we recommend you, you recommend us, and then together we all benefit from people coming into the city, or local people using the facilities here.”
Lazeration says the casino packages account for an additional three-or-four hotel bookings a week. About 10 buses arrive at the Rivers Casino each day, bringing gamblers from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and parts of western Ohio. But like most casinos, most visitors are from a 35-mile radius around Pittsburgh. John McGovern, drove in with his wife from Plum Borough, Pennsylvania about a half hour away.
McGovern: “It’s a big casino, the food in here is good, it’s just like any other casino really."
Niedermier: "Do you go to a lot of other casinos?"
McGovern: "Yeah, we go down to Meadows, down to Wheeling, that’s Mountaineer."
Niedermier: "A casino is opening in Cleveland in the spring, do you think you’ll make a trip there?"
McGovern: "Probably, my wife likes to go around and check them all out."
Niedermier: "When you come to the Pittsburgh casino, do you do other things in the city?"
McGovern: "No, not really, we come down here and go back home. We do shop around and sometimes have dinner at the casino, but that’s about the extent of it.”
Crime hasn’t increased since casino opened
Gambling is not new to Pennsylvania. The state’s horse tracks have had video slot machines since 2003. Still, the opening of a full casino raised concerns about increased crime. Pittsburgh Police Commander Rochelle Brackney is in charge of the North Shore district. She says before the casino, the only real attraction was the football stadium, and the area had its share of crime, including drugs and prostitution. But she says, contrary to the fears of more crime, the casino has not caused been a crime generator.
“Some of the crimes that we thought might be issues were prostitution, robbery, drugs, littering, urinating outside the casino, people being really drunk, and we have not experienced that in Pittsburgh at all. I have not seen a single spike in prostitution or prostitution related arrests," she says. "The incidents that typically occur at the casino are thefts, someone leaves there ticket in a slot machine, or someone leaves their purse open. There don’t even seem to be thefts occurring in the casinos’ gift shops."
Brackney says one factor is that the casino does not serve free drinks to gamblers like many other casinos do. And, she says the casino has an agreement with the city that if certain crimes increase, the casino will pay to help clean them up.
“As long as we can prove there’s a correlation between the casino and the criminal activities. But, again, it’s an incentive on everyone’s part," she says. "You want your community to be safe or people won’t come to the casino, and if they’re not coming to the casino, they’re not coming to enjoy the other amenities of the North Shore. So, although gambling’s an adult entertainment and you must be 21, you still want to make it as family friendly as possible so they continue to patronize the other events and activities that are here.”
Just like in Ohio, casino gambling critics in Pennsylvania warned of an increase in compulsive gamblers.
Jim Pappas heads Pennsylvania’s Council on Compulsive Gambling. He says when casinos opened in Pittsburgh and 3 other cities, those regions did see a spike in calls for help. But that was expected, and things have leveled out since. Another expectation for Pittsburgh’s casino is that it would be a financial boon for the city and state. The agreement with the city includes the casino giving $1 million a year for 3 years to neighborhood development projects. And, $7.5 million a year goes toward construction of the new Pittsburgh Penguins hockey arena.