04/21/2003 11:00PM

Slots lure has Pittsburgh land value on rise

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TUCSON, Ariz. - It has been 250 years since the British and French and the Seneca, Delaware, and Shawnee Indians fought over "the Forks of the Ohio," a triangle of land where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers join the Ohio in western Pennsylvania, a spot that was to become Pittsburgh.

Since then, no one has cared enough about the place to fight over it.

Until now.

All of a sudden everyone wants Pittsburgh, or at least a piece of it big enough to build a racetrack.

Two of the current combatants are household names in American racing, Churchill Downs and Magna Entertainment. Four others are longshots in a crowded field.

One of them is an alliance that includes Herb Tyner and Bernie Hartman, two hard-dealing Michigan businessmen whose holdings include Hazel Park in Detroit. They hear the jingle of future slot machines in Pennsylvania, a melody that sends shivers of anticipation up every red-blooded track operator's spine. They have linked with an outfit called Oxford Development, hoping to build a $25 million track and casino on 150 acres of land in Beaver County, near Pittsburgh along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Centaur Racing out of Indiana, which is buying Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland, also has eyes on a site in Beaver County.

A fifth contender is the Biros family, which owns 200 acres of land in South Versailles, near Pittsburgh, and would like to build a Thoroughbred track on it. With slots, naturally.

And then there are Daniel Vorum and Elizabeth Eelkeema, who own 69 acres of land in Washington County south of Pittsburgh. They have a harness racing training track on the property now and think they should be allowed to add a 350-seat grandstand and have parimutuel wagering on the postage-stamp site, despite the fact that Magna's The Meadows is just a few hundred furlongs away. A township zoning board disagreed last week and turned the couple down.

The big-leaguers in all of this - Magna Entertainment and Churchill Downs - sent in their heavy hitters on a recent spring day to put some numbers up on the scoreboard. President Jim McAlpine appeared for Magna, and executive vice president and chief operating officer John Long was cleanup batter for Churchill.

McAlpine made the case for a Magna track to be called Allegheny Downs, to be built on 174 acres near the Pittsburgh airport. He said all of the other applicants were primarily interested in slots, but that Magna would build for horse racing, with or without slots. Magna's plans call for a mile dirt track and seven-eighths turf course, with 1,320 stalls in 40 barns, a 90- or 100-room dormitory for grooms, and employment for as many as 1,000 people. He tabbed the cost at from $60 million to $100 million.

Long talked of a $500 million development called Pittsburgh Palisades Park, to be built on 635 acres of land on Pittsburgh's south side, which a developer named Charles J. Betters hopes to turn into a huge shopping and entertainment complex with a 350-room hotel, four restaurants, and 2,000 residential units to be built over a period of six to nine years. A track on the site, which Churchill would operate, could be ready in 18 months and would offer live racing and simulcasting year-round. Churchill made the deal conditional on the approval of slots and Palisades Park getting 3,000 of them. Just in case Palisades Park doesn't get the lone Thoroughbred license left in Pennsylvania, and to help "prepare the site" for the Park, Betters last week applied to turn the land, which overlooks the Monongahela River, into something a little less esoteric and a lot more ugly, a strip mine for bituminous coal.

Back in 1753, Gov. Dinwiddie of Virginia sent a young militia major to investigate a French outpost near what is now Pittsburgh. The major reported, "I spent some time viewing the rivers and the land in the fork, which I think extremely well-situated for a fort." The French got there first and built Fort Duquesne. Then the British captured it and renamed it Fort Pitt.

The major's name was George Washington. Too bad Gov. Rendell of Pennsylvania can't send him back now to talk with the warring parties once again and get this thing straightened out.