by Christian Morrow
Courier Staff Writer
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of the story that originally appeared online August 10.
In the wake of recent developments, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill, said African-American patrons of the Rivers Casino should take complaints of discrimination to ownership.
Wheatley told the New Pittsburgh Courier he has had dealings with both Rivers Casino owner Neil Bluhm and CEO Greg Carlin over the years and finds them to be honorable men who would not condone any such disparate treatment.
“That said, it doesn’t mean the practices of all their employees are the same,” he said. “I can’t gauge the veracity of these claims, but I would advise to anyone who thinks they have an issue to reach out to the owners first. If that isn’t satisfactory, there is state oversight of these casinos. If people think there is a legitimate case, take it to the gaming control board.”
In a statement emailed to the Courier, Rivers spokesman Jack Horner said, “Rivers Casino already has reached out to Councilwoman Amanda Hawkins’ office to schedule a personal meeting with our general manager, to address any misunderstanding, and to correct the record.”
Meanwhile, Ron Perkins, founder of Big Business LLC and the nonprofit Zenith Club, has also sent a letter to the Rivers asking to meet with management about these and other allegations of discrimination. He also said if he does not receive a response, he will organize a boycott.
“Failure to acknowledge this email will result in a community BOYCOTT at the Casino until Chicago Billionaire Neil Bluhm plays ball,” he wrote. “In addition to the boycott, protests on your busiest day(s) accompanied by news reporters and City papers will be on hand to witness our outcry for fair treatment.”
Following the July 25 story on the Rivers Casino shutting down a party thrown by the Ruff Ryders Black motorcycle club, the New Pittsburgh Courier received calls and emails about similar actions taken when events drew large Black crowds to the casino—actions that were not taken when events drew large White crowds.
Allegheny County Councilwoman Amanda Green-Hawkins, who has also received allegations of discrimination, is also demanding some real answers. In an Aug.6 letter addressed to Rivers General Manager Craig Clark, she highlighted some of the incidents. The allegations include:
•The cancellation of “Casino Royal Nights” parties held by promoter Jay Legacy in the casino’s Drum Bar in 2011, which despite not being advertised or promoted on the casino website, began to draw large African-American crowds;
•The Black fraternity Omega Psi Phi being charged $15,000 to hold its All White Labor Day Weekend event in the Rivers Ballroom, which according to the letter was twice the usual rate, and
•The cancellation of boxing events promoted by TNT promoter Troy Ridgely, again because they drew large Black crowds.
The casino has maintained that events in the drum bar were shut down due to overcrowding. Green-Hawkins said she has not yet received a response to her letter.
“My role as a county councilwoman is to mediate some kind of resolution because, whether imagined or real, Blacks will not patronize businesses that they think are doing this,” she said.
Green-Hawkins said she wants the casino to be successful. It is in her district and people enjoy it. But that success cannot come at the expense of the city’s African-American residents.
“I’ve been to the Rivers, not to gamble, but for the food, concerts. It’s a nice place,” she said. “But if they don’t want to do business with us, we shouldn’t spend our money there—bottom line.”
Green-Hawkins said she will likely meet with casino management once she sees a response to her letter. But if she doesn’t receive an explanation for what some see as a pattern of bias, she’ll support stronger action.
“There is only so much I can do as an elected official. The public has to apply the pressure,” she said. “But If I don’t get an adequate response, I will likely support those who are calling for a boycott.”
The casino—then called the Majestic—was originally licensed to Black media mogul Don Barden of Detroit. However, after winning the state licensing bid, Barden was hit with a series of lawsuits by losing bidders, neighboring property owners, and civic groups that delayed construction and further drained his finances.
Barden lost ownership shortly after construction began in 2008 when the collapse of the financial market cut off his access to credit. Ownership was transferred to Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm, with Barden retaining a 20 percent ownership stake that satisfied the state’s minority investment criteria. Barden still held that stake when he died in 2011.
The Casino is now owned by a limited partnership called Holdings Acquisition Co. The state renewed its ownership license in 2011. None of the Casino’s key executives, from Bluhm to CEO Greg Carlin to General Manager Craig Clark are African-Americans, and according to Bloomberg News, there is no data available on the board of directors.
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