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Gambling with the future: Spaniards weigh EuroVegas

Meteoric unemployment is propelling a bid by US casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, but critics say Spain stands a lot to lose.

BARCELONA, Spain — Laid-off businesspeople in designer clothes eating in soup kitchens. Young people flocking to study German in the hope of emigrating. Frantic regional governments battling to outdo each other to attract scant investment.

Spaniards are desperate.

Enter American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

The controversial owner of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and third-richest American wants to build a version of the Nevada gambling mecca in the outskirts of Madrid or Barcelona. A mega-resort dedicated to entertainment and business conferences, it would include 12 hotels, six casinos and three golf courses spread across 2,000 acres — the biggest urban development project in Spain since the 1992 Olympics.

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The main hook: EuroVegas would create up to 250,000 jobs in a country where almost 6 million people, up to a quarter of the workforce, are unemployed.

At least that was the pitch until the projected number fell to 14,000 when the company’s directors visited Spain in June, when they also announced a drop in investment from $21 billion to $7.3 billion, two-thirds of which would have to come from Spanish banks.

Nevertheless, Spain’s two largest cities are lobbying hard against each other for the bid.

“EuroVegas is very important,” said Andreu Mas-Colell, economy minister for Catalonia, of which Barcelona is capital. “We are making the necessary efforts to bring it here.”

But despite the project’s attractiveness to officials, it’s generating heated opposition from a growing number of critics who question its viability and criticize what they say would be its harm to society.

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Among the grassroots organizations to have joined the protest, “EuroVegas No” represents more than 30 unions and environmental NGOs, as well as the indignados movement that inspired the Occupy movement in New York.

“This project is based on the same economic model that delivered Spain into the crisis to begin with,” says the platform’s spokesperson Maria Fernandez, “speculation in construction and real estate.”

However, she is most unhappy about exceptions to dozens of laws and regulations that Adelson is believed to be demanding for his casinos. Adelson — who is the largest individual financial donor to Republican candidates in the US 2012 presidential campaign — has already opened resorts abroad in Singapore and on the Chinese island of Macao.

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Las Vegas Sands has asked the Spanish government to ease labor, immigration and money laundering laws, give minors access to casinos and suspend the national smoking ban in enclosed public spaces, according to the newspapers

El País and El Mundo. The company is also said to have demanded a 10-year tax holiday.

The local authorities appear to back the requests. Esperanza Aguirre, head of the region that includes Madrid, pledged at a recent news conference to “change all the norms that have to be changed,” including “of course” exempting casinos from the country’s smoking ban, although that’s something only the national government can do.

The governments of both regions have responded to concerns by many on the political left that EuroVegas would become a center for prostitution, drugs, and money laundering by trying to sell the project as a resort for families and businesspeople where gambling would make up only a small part of the business. Although targeting those groups has enabled Adelson’s resorts to outperform competitors, the Catalan group opposing EuroVegas points to the 75 percent of Las Vegas Sands income that nevertheless still comes from casinos.

Opponents also complain that the land near Barcelona’s airport offered for the resort by the city’s government is designated as an environmental special protection zone.

Fernandez of “EuroVegas No” says Spaniards are being “blackmailed” into accepting demands no company would have made several years ago. She accuses the government of exploiting the country’s unemployment level to bully the population into going along with conditions that would have a major negative impact.

The company declined to answer questions from GlobalPost about the requirements for EuroVegas. Ron Reese, vice-president of public relations, responded in an email only that the project is in “planning stages.”

“Without getting into any specifics, a proposed development in Spain could provide tens of thousands of direct jobs and even more indirect jobs,” he wrote.
Officials from the city-state government of Madrid and from Catalonia also declined to comment.

More from GlobalPost: Will the euro crisis kill soccer in Spain?

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EuroVegas’s promise of jobs on the one hand and demands for legal exceptions on the other have put unions in a quandary.

Spain’s largest union, Union General de Trabajadores, or UGT, says it’s being “cautious.” Although the organization doesn’t “like” the project, spokesman Angel Escobar says, it would be “frivolous” and “disrespectful” to oppose it when almost six million people remain jobless.

However, UGT criticizes Adelson’s reported call to change immigration law to make it easier for non-EU employees to obtain work visas.

“How can someone back foreigners coming to work in Spain when there’s an unemployment rate of 25 percent?” Escobar said.

Catalonia’s largest employers’ organization, Foment del Treball, has also expressed wary approval.

“We understand foreign investment requires special treatment,” said director of economic issues Salvador Guillermo. “But we won’t agree if it becomes an island operating under different laws than everyone else.”

The decision about EuroVegas’s future home is set to be announced in September after it was postponed from July.

Opponents say that’s because Las Vegas Sands is trying to buy time until Spain’s teetering banking system, which doesn’t have the credit to back the project, can lend again.

They say the company is under pressure after its revenues fell more than 6 percent in the second quarter of this year.

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It is also under investigation by US federal and Nevada state investigators for allegedly bribing a legislator in Macau to build its resort there, the investigative news organization ProPublica reported.

Critics say that makes them especially suspicious about the very little public information available about the company’s Spanish proposal.

“If EuroVegas is going to be so profitable and great for our country,” Fernandez says, “why isn’t there more transparency?”