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Beaver County developer is placing his biggest bet -- a racetrack on a hill

Projects spanning from New Jersey to Houston attest to Charles Betters' business acumen

Sunday, February 23, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Beaver County developer Charles J. Betters was a headstrong 17-year-old plumber learning the construction trade, he made a prediction.

Charles J. Betters' ambitious plans for "Pittsburgh Palisades Park," would far outstrip anything he's done. "I've not had time to determine if I'm excited yet," he said last week. "I'm still trying to get the project going."

Online Map:
Approximate site of proposed race track

"I'm either going to be rich or I'm going to be poor, but I don't want to be in between," he told his cousins, with whom he was sent to live after his parents threw him out of the house.

He ended up rich.

Betters, who goes by Chuck or C.J., grew up blue-collar tough in Center to become one of Beaver County's wealthiest businessmen, controlling a construction and real estate empire headquartered in a shopping center he owns on Brodhead Road in Center.

Now in his mid-50s, he lives in a seven-fireplace Georgian mansion on El Shaddai Drive in Brighton, where he entertains such potentates as Gov. Ed Rendell, a friend for whom he held an $18,000 fund-raiser during Rendell's campaign last year.

Through work and savvy, Betters parlayed the family plumbing and heating supply business into a conglomerate.

He's built residential and commercial developments in Beaver, Allegheny and Butler counties, including Adams Ridge and Cranberry Square in the fast-growing Cranberry corridor.

Outside the region, he made his name renovating public housing projects in inner-city Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., Cleveland, Virginia and Houston.

Now he has his sights on creating "Pittsburgh Palisades Park," a community of shops, restaurants, houses and a hotel he hopes to build as part of a horse-racing track and casino he's proposed for 650 acres above East Carson Street in Hays.

At more than $600 million, the development would far outstrip anything he's done.

"I've not had time to determine if I'm excited yet," he said last week. "I'm still trying to get the project going."

Betters and his Putnam, N.Y., investment partners, DGD Realty Associates, jointly own the land bordered by Becks Run Road, East Carson Street, Glass Run Road and Baldwin Borough.

The area, the largest undeveloped piece of land in Pittsburgh, once housed a research facility for the former Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.

DGD bought the property in 1989 from bankrupt LTV Corp., J&L's successor. Betters said he got involved about a 1 1/2 years ago when someone referred him to DGD as a potential partner.

Before the track can be built, he would have to receive a thoroughbred racing license from the state Horse Racing Commission. He's competing with at least four other developers statewide for the license.

Interest is so high because Rendell, who has known Betters since the 1980s, is expected to ask the Legislature to legalize slot machines at state racetracks. But even without slot machines, Betters said he wants to develop the land one way or another.

Few who know him doubt he can do it.

"He builds world-class stuff," said Tony Hallett, who once worked for Betters and helped scout model communities on which to pattern his Adams Pointe gated community in Butler County. "If he goes ahead and builds this, he's going to do it right."

Sensitive side

Betters has his detractors in Beaver County, most of whom won't talk on the record. Some resent his ego (he had his initials stenciled on the side of a corporate jet he once owned), his wealth and his ties to politicians from former Gov. Tom Ridge to local district justices and commissioners.

He certainly can be sensitive to slights. He once sued the Beaver County Times after it quoted an Aliquippa councilman as saying he had a cozy relationship with county officials.

But like him or not, everyone agrees he gets things done.

"I think he possesses an extraordinary business instinct," said Frank Mancini Jr., a former Betters administrator who is now head of planning and development for Beaver County. "He works hard. He works long. He takes risks that other people won't take."

Hallett, who runs a technology and economic development consulting company, said Betters' strength is his ability to outlast everyone.

"Once he gets onto something, he doesn't let go," Hallett said. "He's tenacious. That's what makes him so successful. He's underestimated. He's more of a T-shirt guy than a Duquesne Club guy. He just quietly builds an empire in 10 different places. He's one of the great entrepreneurs in the Pittsburgh region."

Most public officials who have worked with him have been generally satisfied.

"He performed as he said he would," said Dan Santoro, assistant township manager in Cranberry, where Betters built the Cranberry Square complex. "The center went off without a hitch. You hear the reputation and you expect some of that to come through, but none of it did. Our experience was he understood the rules. We explained them clearly. He followed them."

Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. of America, the Hartford, Conn.-based firm that guarantees Betters' performance on government jobs with surety bonds, has never had a complaint about his work.

While Betters is cagey about discussing himself, his lawyer, William Newlin of the Downtown law firm Buchanan Ingersoll, says he's the right man to develop the racetrack property because Betters understands the public and private "personality" of the project.

"This is being designed not just as a track but as a destination site," said Newlin. "He has handled complex projects before. He's worked with difficult sites."

One of them is the stretch of land along the Ohio River in Aliquippa and nearby communities where the sprawling J&L mill once employed 14,000, including Betters' father, grandfather and 15 uncles.

Betters bought hundreds of acres there in 1993, hoping to turn it into an industrial and entertainment complex that would include a riverboat casino.

At the time, the Legislature was considering legalizing riverboat gambling and developers were getting ready. The following year, in fact, Betters announced another potential deal with Donald Trump to build a casino complex underneath the Birmingham Bridge on the South Side.

Those plans evaporated when hopes for riverboat gambling died in 1995.

Taxing matter

Even without a casino, however, the Aliquippa property proved to be controversial. Betters believed the land was overvalued. When his company, Bet-Tech International, bought it, the property was assessed at $30,000 an acre. Betters appealed and won, dropping the assessment to $10,000 an acre.

To spur development, the county tried to work out a deal with the various school districts and municipalities that tax the land to give Betters a tax abatement. But the cash-strapped Aliquippa School District refused to sign off on the plan.

The district filed suit against Betters seeking back taxes. Betters filed his own suit saying the district's two-tier tax system was unfair. The district taxed vacant land 10 times higher than land with buildings, and almost all of Betters' land was vacant.

Critics complained Betters was getting a tax break he didn't deserve.

"Other people in Aliquippa pay their taxes. Why shouldn't he?" a former Aliquippa councilman asked at the time.

Betters countered that he was the one taking the risk to develop the land.

The dispute ended with a settlement in which Betters paid the school district the back taxes he owed and the tax abatement never went through.

Betters has since sold portions of the land to USG Corp., a wallboard manufacturer, and the county for the Beaver County Jail. The only business on his property, Beaver Valley Slag, which is run by his son, Chuck Jr., mines slag for sale in road construction.

More recently, Betters and the county Corporation for Economic Development, which has developed the Aliquippa Industrial Park on its own portion of the old J&L site that later fell under LTV's ownership, have joined to buy the old LTV tin mill for future use.

Betters said he is also nearly finished with the permit process for building a barge facility on the Ohio, with hopes of starting construction this year.

"I wish I could be doing things faster," he said of the site, but development has been slow because of the need for infrastructure and environmental cleanup costs that ran into the millions.

Other Betters projects have been delayed, too.

In Butler County, where he has already done a lot of building, he wants to put up a shopping center along Route 228. But that proposal recently was rejected by Adams supervisors. Betters has appealed the decision to Common Pleas Court.

In Pittsburgh, Betters also has plans for Mount Washington, where in 1998 he bought 14 buildings on Grandview Avenue and demolished them for a townhouse project. Since then, however, he's been stymied by a handful of property owners who won't sell for his price.

"Betters is not willing to be extorted," said Susan Brandt of the Mount Washington Community Development Corp. "So he'll wait. [The delay] is not of his own making. He will wait it out. He'll do this when the time is right."

Homeward bound

By all accounts, Betters is a tireless worker. Married and divorced twice with three children, he likes to cook on occasion, enjoys gambling some and has an interest in art. But he has few real hobbies and appears to be as no-nonsense as the all-black wardrobe he favors.

"I've never been into much of anything except work," he said in a 1996 interview. "I enjoy building things."

His grandparents came to Aliquippa from Lebanon with 18 children, and most worked in the steel mill.

He started learning carpentry at age 13, and by 15 he could plumb a house on his own, working with his father, Joseph, after school. In high school, he worked for local contractors, one of whom lent him $2,100 for materials so he could get started on his own.

Married to his first wife at 18, he soon had two children and moved his family into a house in Plan 6 in Aliquippa. He later built a larger house in Center. In 1970, when he was 20, he completed his first large construction project, an apartment complex in Center.

At 22, his father made him a partner in his heating and plumbing business. Three years later, he bought out his father's interest and started building his contracting business with the help of his brothers, Mark and Alan.

In the 1970s, Betters took on private work and some small government jobs. In the early 1980s, he won bids on federal Department of Housing and Urban Development projects in Butler, the Hill District and Youngstown, Ohio.

Those jobs were worth a few million dollars each, but they got him started with HUD. He later won bids on much bigger jobs worth as much as $30 million for the renovation of public housing in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Houston and elsewhere.

In some cases, Betters bought public housing projects at auction and assumed the responsibility for their rehabilitation and maintenance in exchange for a 15-year "Section 8" contract that guaranteed government-subsidized tenants. That's what he did in Philadelphia.

With the exception of Cleveland, where he still does work, Betters has largely curtailed his jobs in other cities. He sold his corporate jet a few years back because he doesn't need to travel as much.

If everything goes the way he hopes in Hays, his travel demands would ease even more. The biggest project of his life will be right in his back yard.

Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.

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