Manchester beat out London and the seaside community of Blackpool to be selected as the site of the UK’s first Las Vegas-style super casino. The decision is likely to face a legal challenge from Blackpool at least
Manchester’s designation as the site of the UK’s first super casino is not necessarily a compliment. The city, located 195 miles northwest of London, is known for its world-renowned soccer club Manchester United and a rich industrial heritage. In making its selection, however, the UK’s independent Casino Advisory Panel pointed to the super casino as a way to foster badly needed economic development in the city.
The selection of Manchester did come as a surprise, however, with Blackpool considered the front-runner and the Greenwich Dome in London viewed as a highly controversial second choice. Manchester was a 16 to one outsider amongst bookmakers, who may wish to appeal the decision too.
The news perhaps came as the biggest surprise to Manchester city itself. The Manchester Evening News had its lunchtime first edition set up with a banner headline proclaiming Blackpool the winner. Printing was held up while the front page was changed and a new story written.
The UK had originally planned to allow the construction of 20-40 super casinos around the country, but a heated debate on the possible social impacts led the government to cut the number to first eight, then finally one. The selection of Manchester is still subject to approval by British lawmakers and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office said Jowell and lawmakers would likely agree with the panel’s findings, which had been “an honest assessment of the various criteria.”
The new casino, which would be the country’s largest, will have a minimum of 54,000 sq ft of floor space. Several large casino operators are likely to make bids for the location. Bahamas-based gaming group Kerzner International – operator of the Atlantis on Paradise Island – had previously won a US$509 million contract to build a small casino at the site in Manchester. The process was reopened, however, following reforms to British gaming laws in 2005.
Malaysia’s Genting International, MGM Mirage and Harrah’s had bid against Kerzner for the Manchester site, and could bid again for the super casino site. Still, analysts believe international interest in bidding for the super casino site may be limited by government restrictions. “US operators were once eager to participate in the United Kingdom opportunity, however we believe enthusiasm has tempered somewhat as the size and scale of the projects has been diluted,” Deutsche Bank gaming analyst Bill Lerner said in a note to investors
Las Vegas Sands Corp (LVS) has already announced its intention to bid for the Manchester site, with its chances boosted by its recent success in Macau. LVS had previously reached a development agreement with the Manchester United soccer club in 2005, but the deal ended when the Florida-based Glazer family, owners of the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, purchased the soccer team.
The super casino would be based in the Beswick area of Manchester, close to the City of Manchester Stadium, now used by soccer club Manchester City and built for the Commonwealth Games. Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council, said bids would be requested for a contract to build and operate the casino. Operators would likely sign a 250-year lease agreement with the City Council, which owns the land, he said.
The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, said members of parliament would have the final say in designating Manchester as England’s equivalent of Las Vegas. Manchester’s proposal is to make the super casino part of SportCity, a massive sport and entertainment complex. The site will also have an arena, swimming pool, restaurants, a nightclub and a hotel.
Seeking a Casino Boost
In a bid to use casinos to boost regional economies with high unemployment, Britain eased its gaming laws in 2005. Britain already has around 140 small- and medium-size casinos, mainly based in major towns and cities. The super casino is allowed to have 1,250 slot machines –compared to the 4,300 at LVS’ upcoming Venetian Macau casino resort – and an unlimited number of table games.
Eight large casinos with unlimited table games and a maximum of 150 slot machines and eight small casinos with 80 slot machines were also approved. Winners of the large casino licenses include the holiday resort of Great Yarmouth, Hull, Newham, Middlesbrough, Solihull, Milton Keynes, and the port city of Southampton. Small casino licenses were granted to Bath and North East Somerset, Dumfries and Galloway, East Lindsey, Luton, Scarborough, Swansea, Torbay and Wolverhampton.
Stephen Crow, the advisory panel’s chairman, said that although Manchester has one of the country’s fastest-growing economies, it was “the third-most deprived local authority area in England.” Lawmakers claimed the casino would bring around 2,500 jobs and that hotels and other leisure businesses would boost the total to around 10,000.
According to the Casino Panel’s report: “All the proposals shortlisted for the regional casino presented their own particular and compelling strengths. We were, however, particularly impressed by Manchester’s proposal, which in our view offers great promise. Manchester represents a good place to test social impact, and the council’s consultations with other local authorities and relevant bodies gave us confidence on that.” The panel added that “Manchester has a catchment area for a casino second only to that of London, and it is an area in need of regeneration at least as much as any of the others we observed.”
In the Other Corner
Members of Parliament, led by the Blackpool contingent, are demanding the reopening of the decision-making process, and appear to be gaining some support. A Commons motion expressing “surprise and regret” that the Casino Advisory Panel rejected Blackpool’s application has been signed by 18 MPs.
Cambridgeshire’s Tory MP and gambling spokesman Malcolm Moss, said: “How can one defend choosing the most deprived and vulnerable area of Manchester to test whether a super-casino that is open 24 hours a day, with free admission, will generate an increase in problem gambling?” The Casino Panel, for its part, says one of the factors behind Manchester’s selection was “the way it dealt with questions of problem gambling.”
Blackpool supporters argue the super casino is vital to restoring the fortunes of the ailing seaside community, which has seen visitor numbers drop by seven million over the past 15 years to an annual figure of 10 million.
Mayor of Blackpool Allan Matthews responded: “I’m very angry that Manchester has been chosen. It can look elsewhere for regeneration, but we cannot – tourism is all we have. Does Manchester want our sea, and our Tower as well? They might as well have it all. It’s like nailing the coffin lid down on Blackpool. The decision to put it in Manchester is the worst of all scenarios.”
“People talk about a plan B. Well, what have we been doing for the past 100 years but feeding people and entertaining people and giving them a good time? Plan B is going on all the time,” Mr Matthews added.
The Greenwich Dome in London is moving on. AEG Europe, which owns the former Millennium Dome, has said it will not dispute the super casino decision. The dome, now renamed The O2, sits in Greenwich, southeast London. Once completed the O2 will house a 20,000-seater music arena, entertainment and sport events. It will also boast an 11-screen cinema, bars and restaurants and a smaller 2,200 capacity music venue.
London mayor Ken Livingstone, however, said he would continue to lobby the government to allow a casino at the site. After all, having cut the number of planned super casinos from 20-40 to just one, now that it has seen the eagerness of regional authorities to host a super casino, the UK government could be swayed to allow a few more. The odds of Manchester remaining the country’s only super casino site for long can only get higher.
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