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Pittsburgh gaming task force highlights Isle of Capri casino plan

The Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force said Biloxi, Miss.-based Isle of Capri presented a better business model than two other casino operators competing for a slots licence, Forest City Enterprises and PITG Gaming LLC.

The position caused some dissent within the group. Three task force members resigned over the support expressed for Isle of Capri and The Heinz Endowments also dropped its funding.

Isle of Capri has said it will pay US$290 million for a new arena and contribute to economic development in the lower Hill District, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods, if it gets the licence.

"When we consider what is the best casino for Pittsburgh - and in the larger context what is the best deal for Pittsburgh - the Isle of Capri plan is the strongest," the task force said in a letter to the state Gaming Control Board. "We give them an unqualified positive evaluation of their plan to date."

The group said Isle of Capri's proposal "demonstrates excellent use of its site, exceptional design and urban planning, a comprehensive traffic plan, a commitment to a new arena and a solid casino operator who will work with the local community."

But the task force declined to formally back the proposal because the Gaming Control Board's selection process is continuing through the end of the year, and it hopes other applicants will revise their plans before then.

"It's up to the Gaming Control board to make sure the other proposals come up to snuff as well," Anne J. Swager, co-chair of the task force, said at a news conference on Thursday.

Ronald D. Porter, also a task force co-chair, said Isle of Capri's "community giveback is significantly more than it is with the others," and that other candidates might be reviewed more positively if they follow Isle of Capri's example.

"So we're hoping that the bar has been raised," he said.

Mary Navarro of the Heinz Endowments said she was resigning because she felt the task force was moving toward possible endorsement of one bidder. The task force's mission was to establish guidelines and standards, she said.

Representatives of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership also resigned.

Forest City Enterprises, which is teaming with Harrah's Entertainment Inc., failed to provide details about its plan, preventing the task force from making any positive assessment, Porter said.

The task force praised the proposal by PITG Gaming LLC, which wants to build a $460 million slots parlour west of where the Steelers and Pirates play, but said it was concerned about heavy traffic in the area.

The city group's letter of support is not binding, because the state board is the arbiter of which companies will get slots licenses in Pennsylvania.

Getting the funding for a new arena is key is keeping the NHL club in Pittsburgh. Canadian billionaire Jim Balsille, co-chief executive officer of Canada's Research In Motion Ltd. (TSX:RIM) - the maker of the BlackBerry - recently signed an purchase agreement to buy the team.

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