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City Neighborhoods
Hays racetrack plan includes hotel, shops, restaurants

Friday, February 07, 2003

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Developer Charles J. Betters wants to build shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, residences and a hotel as part of the thoroughbred horse racing track and casino he's proposing for a wooded tract above East Carson Street in Hays.

"I'm trying to finish up the master plan for the entire site," he said yesterday. "I'm not there yet, but you're right on the dime if you say that retail, entertainment, restaurants, housing and a hotel are being contemplated."

Betters, who is based in Center, Beaver County, said he is a general partner in the project with DGD Realty Associates of Putnam County, N.Y. He said they jointly own the 635 acres of remote, sparsely populated hilltop land bordered by Becks Run Road, East Carson Street and Baldwin Borough.

The area once housed a research facility for the former Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., whose operations ran along both banks of the Mon River. DGD bought the land in 1989 from bankrupt LTV Corp., J&L's successor.

Betters said he'll provide more details about the project in a couple of weeks.

Before the track could be built, Betters would have to receive a thoroughbred racing license from the state Horse Racing Commission.

He has four other competitors for the last remaining license, two from the Pittsburgh area and two from Philadelphia. Competitors include racing giant Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns The Meadows harness racing track in Washington County and wants to build a thoroughbred track on 172 acres in Findlay, near Pittsburgh International Airport.

It could take the racing commission up to 18 months to decide which group will get the license. The number is set in state law but could be changed.

There is much interest in thoroughbred and harness racing licenses because Gov. Ed Rendell is expected to ask the Legislature to legalize slot machines at state racetracks. That would make them much more profitable.

Rendell, who was in Pittsburgh yesterday, said the state could consider adding a few racing licenses, but added, "I think there's only a certain number we could support without eating each other alive."

Rendell also said, "Obviously this area can support more than just The Meadows, but we don't want to cannibalize The Meadows, either."

As to who should get the final license, he said, "It's not really a matter of what I think because I won't have one appointment to the Horse Racing Commission."

Noting that one group wants to put a harness track in Beaver County, he said, "Beaver County could use the growth probably more even than Allegheny County, but it depends ... on the quality of the application."

Pittsburgh Council President Gene Ricciardi, who represents the South Side, said yesterday he hasn't taken a position on the Betters track, but has opposed the idea of casinos in the past, especially when a riverboat casino was proposed for the South Side waterfront in 1994-95.

"Slot machines would mean additional revenue for the city, but at what cost?" he said. "We welcome investment in the city. We welcome investment from New Yorkers, but we have to protect our quality of life."

He said he also wants to make sure that any stores, restaurants or housing built by Betters in the 31st Ward don't harm the existing East Carson business corridor on the South Side or the new housing, stores and movie theater being built at the South Side Works -- the sprawling former mill site east of 25th Street between East Carson and the Monongahela River.

"We need to look at this racetrack development very carefully," Ricciardi said. "I will have a critical eye toward what it will do about traffic and congestion on Carson Street."

He also said he wants to avoid damaging the greenery of the hillside above Carson Street between Becks Run Road and the Glenwood Bridge.

"I would feel devastated if they just make one gigantic pool of concrete on top of the hill," he said.

Also watching the racetrack project closely is Alexander Bennett, mayor of Baldwin Borough, which abuts the racetrack site.

"It could have quite an impact. It's a concern. I want to protect residents against adverse activity" like traffic congestion or crime that might be caused by a casino, he said.

He and Pittsburgh Councilman Bob O'Connor, who represents the 31st Ward, said the 635-acre site is totally within city boundaries, and yet, oddly, also part of the Baldwin-Whitehall School District.

Bennett said in the late 1940s, J&L Steel asked Baldwin officials to relinquish the section of the J&L property that was within Baldwin so the land would be totally within Pittsburgh.

Baldwin municipal officials agreed to do so, but Baldwin school officials didn't agree, and as a result the hilltop land remained within the suburban school district. That hasn't mattered much in the past, but it would now -- if school taxes are generated by the racetrack and casino. Such revenue would go to Baldwin schools rather than city schools, both Bennett and O'Connor said.

Bennett said that city roads like Becks Run and Glass Run should be used for access to the racetrack, rather than Agnew Road in Baldwin, which is a residential street.

Politics editor James O'Toole contributed to this article.

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

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