Sands Casino Bethlehem now open

May 22, 2009 3:33:38 PM PDT
Gamblers tried their luck Friday at Pennsylvania's newest casino, a $743 million slots parlor built on the site of a historic mill where tens of thousands of workers once made steel for warships and beams for countless skyscrapers and bridges. The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem opened about 20 minutes earlier than scheduled, with hundreds of gamblers - some of whom had lined up before dawn - pouring onto the casino floor to place bets on the blinking, ka-chinging slots.

"Welcome to Bethlehem. Welcome to Sands. Good luck today!" Mayor John Callahan shouted to the cheering crowd.

Casino giant Las Vegas Sands Corp. is counting on its first East Coast casino to boost its sagging bottom line, while residents and local government officials are happy to get the shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant back to productive use.

Debuting with 3,000 slot machines and four restaurants, Sands Bethlehem becomes the eighth casino to open in Pennsylvania since the state legalized slots gambling in 2004.

The state's casino industry grew 13.8 percent last month compared with a year earlier as it continued to expand its largely regional clientele, bucking a nationwide revenue slump that has hurt destination gambling markets like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Sands expects 5 million visitors a year.

Many of the gamblers who showed up Friday had ties to Bethlehem Steel, the onetime industrial titan that began producing steel in this eastern Pennsylvania city in 1873. Steelmaking ended more than a decade ago, instantly transforming the sprawling mill into the nation's largest abandoned industrial site.

As she stood in line waiting to get her casino rewards card, Bethlehem resident Pat Velekei remembered how traumatized her husband was when he lost his job at Bethlehem Steel in 1998.

"We just didn't believe it. We thought it would be here forever," Velekei said of the mill, known to locals as simply "The Steel."

Nevertheless, Velekei said she was impressed that Sands had managed to revitalize the property.

So was another gambler, Miriam Nachesty, who also had family at Bethlehem Steel. "Life goes on," she said. "We got to make the best of what we have. Look at this - it's the Sands!"

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