City rivalries in Spain, as any supporter of Real Madrid or Barcelona knows, are at their most bitter when played out on a football pitch.
That was until Sheldon Adelson, billionaire chairman of Las Vegas Sands, one of the worlds largest gaming operators, arrived in the country dangling the prize of a €18-billion ($23.5-billion) “mega casino,” boasting an avenue of skyscrapers housing 12 resorts, six casinos and 18,000 machines.
Dubbed “Eurovegas,” the project – which is still in the planning stage ahead of a decision expected in the next three months – would be Europe’s first Las Vegas-style casino, designed to draw in the billion people living within five hours from Spain by air.
With Spain mired in a downturn and 23 per cent of its population out of work, the prospect of a multibillion-euro investment, has seen both regional and national politicians consider making concessions that would have been impossible to imagine in better times.
But while casinos are legal in Spain, Mr. Adelson’s project has strongly divided opinion.
Supporters view Mr. Adelson’s offer as a possible solution to a languid investment outlook for both Madrid and Barcelona. Civil action groups that have sprung up in protest, argue that one of Spain’s two major cities will be turned into a modern day Gomorrah, wrecked by crime and prostitution.
Mr. Adelson has indicated to the delegations from Madrid and Barcelona that he hopes for some concessions. Planning regulations for the theoretical skyscrapers could be fast tracked, employment laws loosened and possibly even antismoking legislation softened by the winning city.
Las Vegas Sands estimates that the project could bring in 11 million new tourists each year to Spain and increase overall holiday spending by €15-billion over the next decade. It also represents a potentially risky bet on the recovery of the euro zone by Las Vegas Sands, which has in recent years made the bulk of its foreign investments into the faster growing economies of Asia.
Mr. Adelson, the son of Lithuanian immigrants whose first job was selling newspapers, has gained a reputation as a hard-nosed and fierce negotiator, having fought rival magnates in Las Vegas, and expanded his company into Macao after it opened up it gaming market to foreign operators nearly a decade ago.
In 2010, Las Vegas Sands opened the $5.5-billion Marina Bay Sands casino resort in Singapore, which although constructed 50 per cent over budget managed in its opening year to generate the highest quarterly adjusted earnings before interest, tax depreciation and amortization of any property in the company’s history.
The regional authorities of Catalonia and Madrid have been quick to make Mr. Adelson feel wanted, identifying development sites, while at the same time talking up their advantages.
“For our part there is a total disposition that Las Vegas Sands can build its towers up to the limit of the sky,” said Percival Manglano, economics adviser to the Madrid region in response to Barcelona’s unease at erecting potentially lurid skyscrapers.
Esperanza Aguirre, the Madrid community’s popular but divisive conservative leader, and a leading figure in the ruling Popular Party, is seen by those following the beauty contest as having the edge.
Intended to be built in three phases over 10 years, creating 260,000 jobs according to Las Vegas Sands, the project would, according to Ms. Aguirre, allow “more than half of Madrid to find work.”
Any economic advantages have not been enough to win over pressure groups and skeptical politicians, some of whom view Mr. Adelson’s idea as opportunistic and potentially damaging for either Madrid or Barcelona if it goes ahead.
For Eurovegas No, one of these groups, the project represents a return to the ethos of Spain’s build-it-high property bubble that has wreaked such damage since its implosion three years ago.
Mr. Adelson and Las Vegas Sands, ahead of showing their cards this summer, are hoping that Spain, will remain willing to play their game.