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How not to award a slots license

| Sunday, Dec. 17, 2006

People increasingly are excited over what they will be getting. The anticipation, the anxiousness are nearly unbearable as the long-awaited day at last draws near.

Christmas• Oh yeah. That's coming too, I suppose.

But I was referring to the awarding of Pittsburgh's sole slot machine casino license.

The state Gaming Control Board on Wednesday will decide which of the three finalists gets to plop down a big ol' slots-filled building -- and all its ancillary problems -- in the Hill District, North Shore or South Side.

Today, nearly 30 months after slots were legalized in Pennsylvania, let us ponder the arduous process that has brought us to this festive point and pose a question:

Might a better approach have been taken?

The answer lies in a thorough comparison of the steps leading to the awarding of the Pittsburgh license with an alternative method used in many other states and favored by numerous gaming experts.

THE INSANE APPROACH (the one that was used)

1. Gov. Ed Rendell and the state Legislature suppress the license value by agreeing to sell it for $50 million instead of auctioning it off.

2. Rendell and state legislators invite widespread speculation that the license is undervalued so it can be awarded relatively inexpensively to cronies of, and contributors to, those who undervalued it.

3. Casino operators risk serious injury falling over themselves in their rush to apply for the bargain-basement license.

4. Three finalists for the license offer varying community incentives, from a Red Ryder BB gun to a free hockey arena, to make their casino proposal more enticing.

5. Panic-stricken Penguins fans voice needless concern the team will relocate if the applicant promising the franchise a new arena doesn't obtain the license.

(In reality, the team's relocation option pretty much is limited to a small frozen pond adjacent to a sewage treatment facility on the outskirts of Kitchener, Ontario.)

6. Three finalists degrade their rivals' plans in lengthy hearings before the gaming board that fail to determine conclusively the best casino proposal.

7. The license is awarded without conclusively determining the best casino proposal (pending).

8. Multimillion-dollar lawsuits are filed by the two jilted applicants who didn't get the license because the gaming board made a completely subjective and eminently challengeable decision (also pending).

Boy, that was some fun, eh?

Now let's compare the Insane Approach to:

THE SENSIBLE APPROACH

1. Take the advice of various gambling experts who estimate a Pittsburgh gambling license could fetch $300 million to $500 million if auctioned off.

2. Award the license to the highest responsible bidder.

3. Begin counting the highest responsible bidder's money.

Not to get all idiomatic on you this close to the holidays, but in looking for a quick, uncomplicated and profitable means to a casino end, the sensible approach probably would have been better.

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