More profitable to gamble than to steel

Sign welcoming you to the Sands casino in Bethlehem, Penn.

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: Atlantic City is on a losing streak these days. Profits at New Jersey casinos were down 38 percent last quarter. It's not because no one's gambling -- trouble is, gambling is up in the state next door. The latest Pennsylvania casino opens to the public today in Bethlehem, PA: a casino in what used to be the Bethlehem Steel plant. Preservationists say it's not just a betting house, it's also a showcase for America's industrial history. Joel Rose has our story.


Joel Rose: The casino is officially called the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem. But when this was a working plant, it went by a shorter name:

Charlie Miller: You didn't work at Bethlehem Steel. You worked at the steel, OK? That was how this was referred to.

Charlie Martin worked at the steel for 40 years as an engineer. Now he's a consultant for the National Museum of Industrial History, which is renovating this former electrical shop.

When Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy eight years ago, it left behind a toxic landscape with cavernous workshops and rusting equipment. Martin says that scared off a lot of developers, but not the Sands.

Martin: Someone had to come along with deep pockets to take on the chore of initial redevelopment of the site. And they seem to be able to do it.

Since buying the site two years ago, Sands has poured $740 million into a brand new casino.

Company officials weren't available to comment for this story. But when they applied for a state gaming license, they

did talk a lot about preserving the most visible structures on the site -- including the iconic 20-story blast furnaces.

Howard Gillette: If those furnaces begin to decay -= and they will in the open air, without use -- they're going to be dangerous to visitors.

Howard Gillette teaches history at Rutgers University in Camden. He says Bethlehem is the ideal place to chart the rise and fall of the steel industry.

Gillette: But you can't really interpret those buildings unless they're preserved. And that's where the rub is going to come. There's going to have to be more money. And where will it come from? I'm not sure.

The Sands has donated land to the city and local nonprofits. So far, preservationists seem to be giving the casino the benefit of the doubt.

Tim McFarland is the industrial museum's CFO:

Tim McFarland: What we've seen and heard and many of their actions are certainly headed towards preservation. Whether the financial and economic realities allow them to do that, we don't know.

Sands officials have talked about re-using some older factory buildings for retail and residential projects. But for now, those plans are on hold.

In Bethlehem Penn., I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace.

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