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.
The hotels and casinos and all the rest would be built in three phases over the course of 10 years. Adelson says the project would create 260,000 jobs, 190,000 of them directly.
"It is a very ambitious project," said Jesus Sainz, president of PromoMadrid, a company which is owned by the Madrid regional government and has been negotiating with Adelson's people.
Las Vegas Sands Corp. surpassed Caesars Entertainment Corp. last year as the world's largest gaming corporation, posting profits of $1.27 billion in 2011. Sands operates properties in Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore.
Gaming investors have sniffed out Spain before. A few years ago, Harrah's Entertainment Inc. — now known as Caesars — explored the idea of building a casino complex, albeit smaller than the one being considered now, in Ciudad Real, 200 kilometers (130 miles) south of Madrid. But nothing came of it.
What's changed things now is Spain's economic crisis.
The Popular Party seems open to the Eurovegas idea, although Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's office declined to comment for this story. Allard, of the business school, said that "if the project is viable, the government is going to collaborate and is going to play ball."
Allard said Spain lures lots of free-spending Russian, Chinese and Arab tourists and would be a perfect draw for travelers with a taste for blackjack or roulette.
Madrid was first in expressing interest years ago, with Barcelona jumping in more recently when the regional government changed hands from Socialist to center-right, pro-business Catalan nationalists. The Barcelona site is a wetlands area far from the city center but with a view of the Mediterranean.
In Madrid, one site is a deserted expanse near a shanty town and the other is next to a middle-class suburb called Alcorcon. People there are torn between the lure of jobs and the prospect of prostitutes flooding in.
"Ten years from now, my daughter will be 24 and I would not like her to live in a city with this kind of business," said Pilar Torres, a 44-year-old Alcorcon resident who is unemployed.
An anti-Eurovegas association held a rally in Madrid last week in which Adelson was mocked as an economic messiah, his pockets overflowing with dollars.
Juan Garcia, a spokesman for the association, said a gambling haven is no answer to Spain's crisis.
"I think a casino would be a waste of brain power and labor, and instead endorses an activity that has little do with research, innovation and development," Garcia said.
Oskar Garcia contributed to this report from Las Vegas.