Spain sees gamble in vision of 'Sin City'

By Jorge Sainz

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 27 2012 2:00 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Thursday, March 22, 2012, a commercial plane takes off from Barcelona airport and flies over the field where a Las Vegas-style resort could be placed in Viladecans, near Barcelona, Spain. Madrid and Barcelona are both vying to woo Adelson and the $22 billion he wants to invest to erect "Eurovegas", an array of six casinos, 12 hotels featuring 36,000 rooms, a convention center, three golf courses, shopping centers, bars and restaurants.

Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press

MADRID — A Euro Vegas in down-and-out Spain?

Depending on whom you ask, it could be heaven-sent or a deal with the devil.

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson's dream to build Europe's first Las Vegas-style resort in Spain would certainly bring much needed relief to an economy lurching into another recession and struggling with sky-high unemployment.

But the millions that would rain down come with strings attached: Adelson wants Spanish laws bent so that gamblers can smoke inside the casinos and new zoning regulations allowing him to send buildings soaring above the skyline. And not everyone is thrilled about the idea of Spain hosting a European Sin City that could attract prostitution and mafia gangs — and add gambling addiction to the woes of already desperate Spaniards.

Still, Madrid and Barcelona are both vying to woo Adelson and the $22 billion he wants to invest to erect "Eurovegas" — an array of six casinos, 12 hotels featuring 36,000 rooms, a convention center, three golf courses, shopping centers, bars and restaurants.

The two sites being eyed in Madrid each cover an area equivalent to 1,000 football fields.

Adelson and his company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., will decide by the summer which city to build in if they reach a deal with Spanish authorities.

To say that Spain needs his money would be an understatement.

The country's jobless rate is around 23 percent — nearly 50 percent among those under age 25 — and the economy is forecast to shrink by 1.7 percent this year. First-quarter GDP numbers are expected to show Spain has slipped into its second recession in three years. "At a time like this, with so little to boost the economy, something like this is like manna falling from heaven," said Gayle Allard, an economist who specializes in labor market issues at IE Business School in Madrid.

Allard said that Spain is already a huge tourist draw, with its sunshine and great beaches, and a casino complex would build on those assets. Spain is regularly one of the world's three most visited countries, along with the United States and France.

Critics argue Eurovegas will bring more criminality to Spain just as the economy goes into a nose-dive. And they warn that while Spain's young people are in dire need of jobs, positions such as hotel maids, waiters and croupiers are not a recipe for success.

Fears abound that allowing Adelson to build skyward would create a massive eyesore for either picturesque city that gets the casino. The notion of easing Spain's smoking ban so gamblers can light up while trying their luck also horrifies anti-tobacco campaigners.

One irony of the the grandiose development project is that Spain's onetime roaring economy fell apart with the collapse of a massive property bubble.

Adelson — also known to many Americans for his generous contributions to Newt Gingrich's presidential run — started looking at Spain as a possible site for a European gambling magnet in 2007, but years of negotiations with Socialists who ruled then went nowhere.

The Socialists lost power last year as voters vented frustration over the dismal economy. Now the more business-friendly Popular Party is in charge, and this, along with the downturn, means authorities are probably more amenable to welcoming Adelson.

Gambling is legal in Spain. But its casinos, and others in Europe, are associated with a more snooty clientele and ambiance, not the festive, anything-goes atmosphere of Vegas.

"There is no one place in Europe that is fun to go to and play the slots or play tables or have a good time with an adult couple or family," Adelson said in a meeting with investors in New York last September. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

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