Casinos

[The Strip Sense]

An easy target, a misguided notion

Why the people of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, should be grateful for, not suspicious of, their new casino

The day after the May 22 opening of the quite lovely Las Vegas Sands casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the local newspaper, the Express-News, ran with a news bulletin on its website: “Easy ways to stay safe at Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem; two patrons report missing wallets.”

We then met Nancy Miller, 61, of New Joisey, who bought a snack at the food court and “shortly thereafter noticed her wallet missing,” and 25-year-old Dominique Alexander of Philadelphia, who left her wallet on a slot machine and “found it had been taken” when she returned.

Stop the presses! People lose shit! The intrepid journalist on the case turned to About.com for news-you-can-use tips on how not to let “loss, theft and other problems spoil your Memorial Day weekend fun at the casino,” which essentially boiled down to: Keep track of your shit.

Yes, this is an example of ridiculous journalism. There’s no chance any serious newspaper would have done a story on these careless people if they had misplaced their wallets at, say, a new Starbucks. Nor would they have drawn the inference that people need tips on how to stay safe at all coffeehouses.

But to me, it was more than that; it was the culmination of a couple of days focusing on a foreign land where a casino was a new and troublesome presence to many. As I covered the Sands opening, I was reminded yet again of how ridiculous the nation’s love-hate affair with Las Vegas and the gambling business has become.

The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem is the sort of community establishment that ought to be heralded and honored. LVS won the license from Pennsylvania by promising to spend $743 million on a complex that includes the 3,000-slot casino, several restaurants, a 300-room hotel, a large outlet mall and a convention center. (The last three parts are in stalled-construction mode because of the credit crunch, but CEO Sheldon Adelson told me Friday he believes construction may be restarted by year’s end. Also by year’s end, the casino will have 5,000 slot machines. No table games yet, per state law.)

All of that is being built on a piece of the grounds of the once-mighty Bethlehem Steel factory, which went bankrupt in 2001 and ceased to exist in 2003 after 146 years. At its peak, Bethlehem Steel provided 40,000 jobs and material for the Empire State Building, World War II tanks and the national rail system. But for the past two decades, the company’s decline and failure have turned 1,800 acres of factory along the lovely Lehigh River into unremitting blight and a tease of what this handsome, historic, once-proud city used to be.

Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, a 39-year-old Democrat who tells me he learned important lessons on mayoral ethics from a talk by one Oscar B. Goodman (?!?), single-handedly persuaded his city council to pursue the casino. To him, it’s the linchpin of a regional renaissance, an anchor tenant for other major businesses who might come to occupy other parcels of former Bethlehem Steel land. The Sands also agreed to a brutal 55 percent state tax on gaming revenue, so the Bethlehem city coffers expect more than $9 million a year out of this. The entire city budget is $55 million, so that’s a big deal.

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Beyond the Weekly
Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem

What’s more, Las Vegas Sands placed its resort on the most challenging part of the site, having to fill in a mammoth ore pit. And the structure they raised pays significant homage to what was there before, with a steel-factory interior look, lighting fixtures that look like fired-up steel rods and bars and restaurants with names like Molten and Coil.

So this is a good thing, right?

Well, no. Everybody’s suspicious because there’s gambling involved. The Express-News’ editorial the day the place opened was well-wishing, but it also opened by saying: “Here’s one way to judge whether the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem is a success: In six months, the city of Bethlehem doesn’t begin to show up on billboards under the heading, ‘Slots capital of Pennsylvania.’” Bloggers, too, decried the economic desperation that must have led the fine folks of Bethlehem to resort to allowing the big, bad Vegas predators to come prey on their weak, old and sick, and mocked patrons for wasting their money on frivolity.

How tiresome. The argument goes that gambling is the equivalent of throwing away money. You know you’ll lose, so why play?

Yet many forms of entertainment cost money but only momentarily amuse. People spend hundreds of dollars seeing shows and ball games, and nobody ever suggests the proprietors of those activities are predatory just because those experiences are temporary. Every new bar that opens provides new opportunities for alcoholics to indulge their vice, but nobody protests that.

In fact, I can’t think of another so-called “vice” business that does more to alert its patrons to the potentials of addiction and provide material and contact information where help can be obtained.

Gaming, for all its image problems, is singularly socially responsible in this regard. Pamphlets are everywhere in every casino I’ve been to, and the phone numbers or websites for addiction hotlines appear on every billboard and print ad I saw for the Sands Bethlehem. All of this even though the vast majority of people who play can regulate themselves just fine.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here in Vegas. It’s just nice once in a while to reiterate why the business of Las Vegas is not an unadulterated evil. And I’m feeling particularly defensive right now. Yes, Las Vegas Sands is in Bethlehem to make money. But they’ve also done a remarkable job creating a facility that fits the look, feel and sensibility of its community.

They’ve built, essentially, a steel-themed casino. Rather than having an unthinking response, these people should be grateful for the jobs, the infrastructure, the tourism to come.

Instead, we get the likes of JeffK, commenting on a Philadelphia Inquirer report on the opening:

“What a waste! A huge, glitzy slots parlor that’s vacuuming money from people’s pockets into the owners’ vaults instead of actually MAKING something useful. The governor and the legislature mixed up a huge vat of Kasino Kool-Aid and everybody’s pushing to take a guzzle. No different from the Romans with their bread and circuses—and we all know how that ended.”

Oh, brother.

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