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Europa Vegas draws Madrid and Barcelona into battle over megacasino 06/03/2012
Giles Tremlett in Madrid
Spain's two largest cities are vying to become the home of a €17bn Vegas-style development and secure work for locals

Spain's two main cities are battling it out for a Vegas-style complex of a dozen casinos, several hotels, shopping malls, conference centres, golf courses and theatres in an attempt to create jobs as the economy slumps back into recession.

With unemployment at 23% and rising, politicians calculate the vast casino city will create 260,000 jobs, securing work for close to half the unemployed in the densely populated provinces of either Madrid or Barcelona.

But opposition politicians and the church warn that the cure will be worse than the illness, claiming Europa Vegas, the €17bn (£14.3bn) project planned by the US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, will bring a surge in gambling addiction.

Local officials, though, are bending over backwards to accommodate Adelson, who is reportedly demanding tax breaks, gambling law changes, new labour laws and free land as he extends his empire from Las Vegas and Asia into Europe.

"We believe we have the necessary package of agreements with the government which we need to provide assurance of success," Adelson told Forbes magazine, which described him as the American billionaire who had most increased his wealth since 2008. "We're just finalising the last components."

His Las Vegas Sands company did not answer a request for details about the agreements reached on the project, which would be equivalent in size to half of the Las Vegas strip, the four-mile stretch of megacasinos in Nevada.

Last week Adelson was in Spain again, looking at a vast beachfront stretch of land close to Barcelona's airport that has been offered to him despite environmental protection orders.

"This would turn Catalonia and Barcelona into the leading tourism zone in Europe," said the regional Catalan president, Artur Mas.

But Mas accepts Madrid is in the lead. Its regional prime minister, Esperanza Aguirre, has met Adelson five times. "We should change whatever norms have to be changed," she said recently. "We have to encourage this ... though there are some demands that can be accepted and others that cannot."

Both regions hope Europa Vegas will have the kind of runaway financial success that Adelson's new outposts in Singapore and Macao are enjoying.

But opposition politicians in both Madrid and Barcelona are worried. "We don't agree with this sort of economic model, which would create a tax haven that comes close to being a form of slavery," said a socialist Madrid regional deputy José Quintana.

Local bishops in Madrid are rebelling against the project. "As a recent parliamentary session pointed out, gambling addiction brings with it an increase in illegal acts, suicides and bankruptcies," the bishopric of Alcalá said in a note to parishioners.

Forbes rates 78-year-old Adelson as the eighth wealthiest person in the US, with a net worth of $21.5bn. Income at Las Vegas Sands, which owns the Venetian, the Palazzo and the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas, leaped 26% in the last quarter – though 90% of his profits now come from operations in Macao and Singapore.
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