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South Side racetrack developer has N.Y. partners

Realty firm owns 635-acre site; mayor offers tentative support

Thursday, February 06, 2003

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A New York realty group that owns a remote hillside tract above East Carson Street in the city's 31st Ward has joined local developer Charles J. Betters on a proposal to build a thoroughbred horse racing track and gambling facility on the site.

DGD Realty Associates, of Putnam County, N.Y., bought the 635 acres of wooded slopes from bankrupt LTV Steel in 1989, hoping to build more than 700 homes.

That never happened, but Peter Gamar, of DGD, said yesterday that his group has now "joint ventured" with Betters on the racetrack/slot machine proposal. The partnership is called the Pittsburgh Development Group, Gamar said.

Betters, who is based in Beaver County, still needs to obtain a license from the state Horse Racing Commission. There are four other groups, two from the Pittsburgh area and two from Philadelphia, competing for the sole remaining thoroughbred racing license to be awarded by the state.

Other groups could still enter the competition, said racing commission Director Ben Nolt. There's no deadline for the agency to decide who will get the license, he added.

Betters hasn't disclosed whether he has financing for the racetrack, but by working with the New York group he at least has cleared one major hurdle -- control of the large, mostly uninhabited hilltop tract.

The site for the racetrack is in city Councilman Bob O'Connor's district and is bordered by Becks Run Road on the west, East Carson Street on the north, the neighborhood of Hays on the east and Baldwin Borough on the south.

O'Connor said the site offers a great view of the Monongahela River and Downtown to the west, but that road access is limited.

"There is certainly great potential here for bringing people, jobs and revenue to the city, but we have to bring all the parties together to make sure that it's done properly and that it's a win-win for all involved. It's a positive initiative, but the key will be how it's designed and made compatible with surrounding neighborhoods," he said.

Mayor Tom Murphy issued a statement yesterday giving conditional support to the plan.

"Clearly this development has the potential to be a substantial investment in the city," said Murphy spokesman Craig Kwiecinski. "But we want to study the project further to ensure that we have a complete understanding of the infrastructure and traffic implications for the city and the surrounding neighborhoods."

Before Murphy would fully support it, Kwiecinski said, he needs "a clear picture of the revenue ramifications for Pittsburgh."

Murphy said in a brief interview yesterday that he had met "a few times" with attorney William Newlin, who represents Betters on the racetrack proposal.

There are four racetracks in Pennsylvania, with a fifth licensed but not yet built in Erie.

The revenue-raising potential of any of the tracks won't be known until the state Legislature acts on a measure legalizing slot machines at racetracks, and that may not happen until June 30 or later.

Numerous bills have been introduced in Harrisburg to legalize slots at the tracks, but they provide varying amounts of revenue to the state, the host municipality, the host county, the host school district, the track owners and horse breeders.

One factor in favor of legalizing slot machines is the strong support of Gov. Ed Rendell, who needs additional revenue to plug a hole of up to $2 billion in the state budget. The three previous governors, Mark Schweiker, Tom Ridge and Bob Casey, were cool to additional legalized gambling in the state.

Additional support for the racetrack plan came yesterday from Jim Emro, president of the 31st Ward Citizens Council, who liked the idea of expanding the city's tax base and getting additional revenue from a tax on slot machines.

He said buses currently take many Pittsburghers to gamble at racetracks or casinos in West Virginia, Atlantic City, N.J., and Niagara Falls, Canada, and the proposed track could keep them here.

"The biggest concern I have is the road system and accessibility to the site," he said.

But he noted that the Mon-Fayette Expressway may be built over the next five to seven years on the northern side of the Mon through Hazelwood, and access would be available across the Glenwood Bridge.

He didn't think racetrack traffic would harm nearby city neighborhoods like Lincoln Place, New Homestead or Hays.

Emro said residents of Baldwin Borough would also have to be consulted on the proposed track because it's so close to the site.

Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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