Las Vegas gamers eye Pa. slots

Jan 31, 2006 3:05 AM

Pennsylvania gaming officials may begin holding hearings around the state by April to gauge reaction to proposals for creating racinos and slot casinos.

Which is not the same as awarding bids. Not yet, anyway.

No telling when the first approvals might be issued, but don’t hold your breath. Except for the racinos, many of the sites will be determined on the basis of pushing and shoving among myriad business and political interests. That could take a while.

So what’s new?

Many of the bids are backed by companies with strong Las Vegas connections.

Insiders doubt the first slot casino will open before 2007, but the push to actually have hearings represents another step toward the eventual day when there will be thousands of slot machines competing for the attention of gamblers who have so far satisfied their gaming urges by traveling out of state.

Industry watchers who have nodded approvingly at gaming expansion in Pennsylvania are a little frustrated that Gov. Ed Rendell’s plan to get slots approved has been mired in so much sticky politics.

But politics is what we have. Four of the seven Gaming Board members are appointees of the Republican and Democratic caucuses in each of the legislature’s two houses.

Thinking about all the legislative conflict since slots were approved, I imagine this situation makes for some lively conversations.

A senior executive at one of the public companies hoping to get a juicy slice of the Pennsylvania pie offered some thoughts with the promise of anonymity.

"Regional politics is," he said, "an issue as it is in many of the new jurisdictions, but the pieces will all eventually fall into place. We just have to be patient."

However, it is never too early to wonder how soon the state’s experiment with slots might evolve to something more, like full-blown casinos.

That got a laugh, with my executive friend rolling his eyes as he said, "I wouldn’t even want to talk about that right now, but it’s safe to say it would be several years."

That soon, huh?

No deal for
Wynn, loveman

Steve Wynn and Harrah’s Entertainment will probably not team up for a Macau joint venture.

Both Wynn and Harrah’s Chairman Gary Loveman seem to have a lot of respect for each other, but Wynn’s current focus is Las Vegas and, of course, Macau. The continuing international sprawl of Harrah’s does not make for a great fit.

And then you’ve got to ask yourself, with super personalities like Wynn and Loveman working on the same project, which one would be chairman?

The more likely possibility is that Harrah’s will one day make an offer for the Wynn holdings that Steve cannot refuse, but that is definitely a story for another day.

Joint venture talk between the two is nothing new.

They actually did agree on a joint venture in New Orleans. That was the plan back in the early 1990s, but Wynn pulled out of that and hasn’t been back. Those were the days when Harrah’s was still a dark horse to get the Big Easy’s only land-based casino.

Loveman was not with Harrah’s then, but he may now have those moments when he wishes the company had followed Wynn out the door.

Wynn’s preferred style has been to control his projects, to be The Man. Nothing wrong with that considering his track record; and Loveman’s apparent tendency to do exactly the same thing.

Harrah’s wrestles
with costly options

Where does a big resort company want to be 10 years from now?

There’s not a lot of room for mistakes when the cost of making a big statement on the Las Vegas Strip has sailed way beyond a billion dollars.

There are lots of questions to be studied carefully as Harrah’s Entertainment strategists contemplate likely strategies for their dozens of Strip acres on either side of Flamingo.

The issues have not become any less challenging since the Harrah’s chairman last addressed them publicly months ago, saying we should not expect the company to have much to say about its options here before the middle of the year.

But with the shape of things to come at Boyd’s 60 Stardust acres now visible to all, Steve Wynn looking like he’s ready to move ahead with his Encore project, Frontier owner Phil Ruffin going public with his big plans and who knows what else is on the way ”¦ well, who knows?

Of course, the highway to a big statement on the Strip is more challenging than ever. Which is another way of saying very expensive.

Loveman wants Harrah’s on the Vegas cutting edge 10, maybe 15 years from now and for the first time in the U.S. has the chance to quarterback plans that will take perceptions about the company’s ability to project pizzazz to a level it’s never visited before.

The same chance also exists in Biloxi where the new ability to build on land and state government’s recent show of support for the gaming industry encourages a similar big reach.

The planners at Harrah’s are not taking this challenge lightly as they measure and calculate market segments — like a geologist looking for oil — thinking about what it takes to serve any or all of them.