What are our Odds? Bringing a little sin to the Bayou City

July 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

LAS VEGAS – The neon lights! The buzz of thousands of tourists! The money! The hurly-burly of the Strip lined with casinos, each the size of Delaware filled with drunken conventioneers! The rattle of dice and the clang of slot machines and … wait … let’s go back to the money. Where’s our cut? Why doesn’t Houston have a place at the table? Why is it “Good-bye Mister Chips” and not “Hello, Houston”? Stop everything. In other words, Texas, Hold ‘Em.

We broach this matter because we need to get in on America’s current fascination with gambling, or “gaming” as those in the biz like to say. Poker is on a huge binge. Then there is online gambling. We should move quickly for, although Tom DeLay and Jack Abramhoff have been deposed and their efforts to keep Texas gambling-free have been sidetracked, the betting craze may not last. Like the Texas Lotto, people will eventually figure that they are losers and will break the habit. So it’s time for Houston to become the next Monaco-on-the-Turning Basin.

You protest that our fair town does not have the best weather for visiting gamblers, especially in the summer. Visit Sin City during July and compare the sweat quotient. Houston wins, glands down. When it comes to location, location, location, Houston is more centrally situated than Las Vegas, which sits on the most inhospitable spot in America outside of Alaska’s north slope, surrounded by the landscape of the moon, hundreds of miles from any other sizable town, the temperature easily reaches 120 in the summer, and virtually everything has to be imported.

Houston, on the other hand, has plenty of cheap land, lots of water (a nagging problem in Nevada), cruise ships to drop by, and we’d finally find a use for the Astrodome. Just picture casino-lined Buffalo Bayou, brightly lit with neon signs touting Wayne Newton’s new act and Cirque du Soleil’s 143 different shows, and all that money coming in.

Years ago, no doubt some naysayers said Vegas would never work. But the idea clicked even better than Bugsy Siegel could have predicted in his final moments before getting gunned down by his associates (every business has its drawbacks). Look at the record. In 1950, Las Vegas’ head count was 24,624, the size of today’s Rosenberg. Now the population is nearing 2 million and growing. In the mid-1970s, there were 35,000 hotel rooms in Vegas.

Today, there are 151,000 rooms (more than any other city in the country), with 11,000 rooms under construction, as well as more on the drawing boards (35,000). In comparison, the Houston area has 443 major hotels and motels with 58,607 rooms and another 886 rooms under development. Las Vegas hotels have a 95 percent weekend occupancy rate — approaching 100 percent at the newer properties. Last year, even the weekday rate fell just shy of 90 percent.

Everywhere you look on the Strip, huge construction cranes loom. Echelon Place will have more than 5,000 rooms when finished. The Venetian, already the sixth largest hotel in the world and the fourth largest in Las Vegas, is opening a 3,200-suite tower. The relatively new Wynn is doubling its size, which would rank as New York’s largest hotel, but will not even crack Las Vegas’ top 15. Then there is the Fontainebleau Resorts which has plans for a $2.8 billion, 3,900-room resort on the Strip.

A new condo-casino called CityCenter, costing $7 billion, will rank as the most expensive private project in American history. The MGM, with 5,000 rooms, is the largest hotel in the world — thus far. The town is home to 15 of the 20 largest hotels on the planet, with each new project bigger than the last.

Increasingly, condominiums are hot property and everyone wants to get into the act. Even Donald Trump who, according to a local real estate expert (my cabbie), wanted to build a casino and a high-rise condo, but the Nevada Gaming Commission said no because The Donald had gone bankrupt with his Atlantic City casinos and no one who declares bankruptcy can get a casino operating license in Nevada. So Trump is building two huge, high-rise condos without casinos.

Why can’t Houston be dealt in on the action? We have a lot more going for us than this oasis in the middle of nowhere. We have major league sports. Las Vegas doesn’t and probably never will because the pro sports owners insist there be no gambling on their games, and the casino owners say that’s an offer they can refuse.

Houston has good restaurants and shops, which are important. Last year, visitors to Vegas spent a combined $15 billion at the Strip’s various casino resorts. Sixty percent of that revenue — $9 billion — was from non-casino sources ranging from hotel rooms to shows to restaurants, which can cost a night’s big winnings. Then there are high-end retailers which pay a fortune for a spot inside the sprawling malls that are now a necessity in every large casino.

There would seem to be enough gambling to go around. The American Gaming Association just released a new study which found that last year, for the eleventh straight year, gambling revenues have increased, hitting the $32.4 billion mark in 2006. The Las Vegas newspaper, the Review-Journal, figured up just how much $32.4 billion would buy, including 217 Picasso’s painting of “Le Reve,” 27 New York Yankee franchises, 108,000 Ferraris and 982 years of Celine Dion’s rumored salary. But this $32.4 billion is just the tip. It doesn’t include the Indian reservation gambling take, which is more than Nevada’s commercial casinos, nor the slots at horse and dog tracks. All told, get this, Americans are now spending nearly $90 billion a year on legal gambling.

At this point, let me insert The Reason I am Not Rich (Chapter 34): Gambling was a major force in Nevada for years before other states got into the act. If you wanted to gamble, you had to go to Nevada. Then every state with a showboat or Indian reservation slowly got into the act. Today, more states have some sort of casino, commercial or Indian, than don’t. (See the sidebar).

Did these new operations siphon away from the Strip the dice-throwers and card sharks like I figured they would? It seemed that potential gamblers would say, “Why fly to Vegas when I can drive to Lake Charles?” Wrong. Studies show that the local operations only whetted the appetites for gambling. So all those Houstonians who went to Coushatta or L’Auberge du Luc and tried their luck, said, “Hey, let’s try the big time in Vegas.” Texas is surrounded by casinos which are the Triple A farm teams for the Strip.

The Gaming Association’s survey somehow does not cover bankruptcy, divorce or suicides, which might see an uptick in our town with the advent of casinos. We might have to import a few Mafia bosses to add to the ambiance in a colorful but semi-respectable way. The flamboyant Oscar Goodman, “lawyer to the mob,” is now mayor of Las Vegas.

All we need is a catchy slogan. How about: “What happens in Houston stays in Houston,” because what stays in Vegas is other people’s money.

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