May 27, 2009 / 6:25 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. casino honors steel past, boosts economic hopes

BETHLEHEM, Penn. (Reuters Life!) - Where blast furnaces once forged steel beams to build American skyscrapers, thousands of blinking slot machines with names like “Stinking Rich” now lure gamblers to eastern Pennsylvania.

The site of Bethlehem Steel, a defunct industrial giant that made raw material for New York’s Chrysler Building and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, is now home to the Sands Casino Resort, which boasts 3,000 gaming machines.

“They’ve got it all here,” said Susan Davis, 57, a hospital housekeeper from Bethlehem who took a day off work to check out the recently opened casino, owned by Las Vegas Sands. “It’s beautiful.”

Once one of the top U.S. steelmakers, Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy in 2001 amid sluggish demand in a weak economy, depressed prices and a glut of supply that American producers blamed on foreign companies dumping steel on the U.S. market.

Now tax revenues from the casino standing in its place — the eighth to open of 14 authorized by Pennsylvania in 2004 in a bid to stop gamblers going to surrounding states — will help provide property tax relief amid a deep U.S. recession.

Since the first of the planned new casinos opened in November 2006, Pennsylvania has taken $1.86 billion in gaming revenues, said Doug Harbach, a spokesman for the state’s Gaming Control Board. A ninth casino is due to open in August in Pittsburgh, the former headquarters of U.S. steelmaking.

The Sands Casino Resort is integrated into an industrial landscape of rusting blast-furnace chimneys and crumbling foundries on the south bank of the Lehigh River in Bethlehem, an eastern Pennsylvanian city of some 70,000 people.

Its name is mounted in huge red letters on an arched “ore bridge” where cranes once seized iron ore from freight trains and loaded it on to conveyor belts to begin its transformation into steel.

The 139,000-square-foot (42,000-square-meter) gaming floor, though housed in a new building, contains echoes of Bethlehem’s industrial past, with matte-black ceiling beams and an array of orange lights designed to evoke pieces of glowing hot steel.


But despite the efforts to honor the past, several hundred people who waited in line to be the first customers last week seemed more interested in slot machines than history.

“I want to win money,” said Ella Coughey, 68, a retired resident of West Norriton, Pennsylvania, who described herself as a regular casino patron and said she normally travels to casinos near Philadelphia or to New Jersey’s gaming capital Atlantic City with her husband.

While Atlantic City is hurting from the economic downturn and competition from surrounding states, the Bethlehem casino hopes to benefit from being closer to the major markets of New York and northern New Jersey.

Atlantic City’s 11 casinos posted the sharpest drop in revenues in 30 years in March and three slots parlors owned by Trump Entertainment have been driven into bankruptcy.

When the $743 million Sands Casino Resort is complete it will include 5,000 slot machines, a hotel and retail space on the largest previously developed or “brownfield” site in the United States, which covers 126 acres.

Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan said the casino will create about 1,000 permanent jobs and is expected to attract up to 5 million visitors annually and to generate around $10 million a year in tax revenue for the city of some 70,000.

But he said the city’s economy won’t depend on the casino, as it did on the steel works where thousands of people worked.

“We made that mistake before; it won’t be happening again,” Callahan said. Instead, the city is planning to diversify its economy with retail outlets and a business park as part of the redevelopment of the steelworks site.

Callahan said it was important for the casino to recognize the history of a plant that employed up to 30,000 people and played a vital role in the history of the city.

“There is a tremendous pride in this community from the people who used to work here,” he said. “We made the steel that built this country.”

The casino’s recognition of industrial history has helped to overcome misgivings in the local community, said Rebekah Rusnock, a reporter with the weekly Bethlehem Press newspaper.

“It’s like hallowed ground,” she said. “It’s not just that you worked there, it’s that your father or your brother or your cousin worked there. It’s just a revered site.”

Editing by Michelle Nichols and Cynthia Osterman

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