The battle to operate a Lehigh Valley casino heated up here Wednesday as Sands BethWorks promised to spend $600 million on the first phase of its project — more than its Allentown competitor would spend on its entire site.
The ambitious project would open 3,000 slot machines in summer 2008 with plans to eventually expand to 5,000 slot machines. That's more machines than many casino applicants say they would operate.
But the bulk of BethWorks' $600 million project — proposed for 126 acres of the old Bethlehem Steel plant — would not actually redevelop the rusting steel buildings that sprawl across south Bethlehem. It would turn the ore bridge into the casino's entrance, refurbish the high house, and stabilize and light the blast furnaces.
The rest of the money would go toward constructing buildings for a casino, retail shops and restaurants on vacant land near the Minsi Trail Bridge. Other Bethlehem Steel buildings, such as the machine shop, which BethWorks hopes to convert into retail stores, would not be developed during the first phase of the casino's construction.
Sands BethWorks, like most slots parlor applicants, plans to build its casino in phases. When the other phases would be complete and how much they would cost are not known, said William Weidner, president of BethWorks' parent company Las Vegas Sands, adding he is committed to building out the project as much as possible.
When board members questioned what would happen to the steel brownfields if the casino generated less money than anticipated, Weidner said, ''I can't honestly tell you we can guarantee that the rest of the site gets developed.''
Still, Weidner said he believes Sands BethWorks would make more money for the state — which would earn money from slot machine taxes — than its nearest competitor, Tropicana Pennsylvania in Allentown.
And when board member Chip Marshall asked why Weidner plans 5,000 slot machines when ''very few [other casino applicants] think they're going to get to 5,000,'' Weidner responded, ''I don't know what they're thinking.''
He said he believes additional machines will help ''suck in every customer we can.''
The Tropicana, which plans to open at the end of 2007, would build 250 hotel rooms and operate 3,000 slot machines in its $350 million first phase, and add an additional 250 hotel rooms and 2,000 slot machines within the next five years. The total cost of the Tropicana project is estimated at $550 million, $50 million less than Sands BethWorks would spend in its first phase.
In a video that the casino presented to the board about the death of Bethlehem Steel — complete with shots of vacant buildings and heart-tugging music — Sands BethWorks highlighted its supporters, including Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, ironworkers and community activists. Most were taped as they talked about the need for jobs in Bethlehem.
A group of casino supporters wearing red T-shirts cheered as the video played during Wednesday's hearing.
But Mark Nevins, spokesman for the Tropicana, and a handful of Sands BethWorks opponents who showed up for the licensing hearing, pointed out that the Sands project has drawn some of the greatest public opposition of any casino applicant facing the board.
Weidner brushed off comments about public opposition, insisting it was only a small percentage of the public, and saying he believed much of the opposition came from the Moravian Church in Bethlehem.
''It is impossible to convince people if they believe that gambling is immoral,'' Weidner said.
Later he added, ''The Tropicana does not have more public support than we do. We simply have the Moravian Church, which is opposed on moral grounds.''
Bethlehem resident Bruce Haines, a part-owner of the Hotel Bethlehem, said he found Weidner's comments offensive.
''The opposition is much greater than just the Moravian Church,'' he said, adding he opposes the casino because of its proposed location near residences and Lehigh University.
The two prospective Lehigh Valley casinos are competing against one another as well as against two casinos proposed for the Poconos and a fifth casino planned in the Gettysburg area. The gaming board will award only two slots parlor licenses.
Most gaming experts believe one of the licenses will go to the Lehigh Valley because the area is expected to generate some of the largest gaming revenues in the state. However, only one of the Lehigh Valley projects will be awarded a casino license. State law prohibits both casino applicants from receiving a license because stand-alone casinos must be 20 miles apart.
The gaming board, which expects to issue licenses on Dec. 20, will hold a licensing hearing for Tropicana Pennsylvania on Wednesday.