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Slovenia lawmakers will consider changing rules

20 Jun 2007

By Arnold M. Knightly

Slovenia's lawmakers will next month start debating changes to gaming and business-ownership laws that would allow Harrah's Entertainment to partner on a $1 billion casino development near the Italian border.

The Las Vegas gaming company agreed in early June to take a 49 percent stake in partnership with Hit, a Slovenia-based developer, for a mixed-used project in western Slovenia.

The agreement allows Slovenia's Finance Ministry to propose and debating changes to regulations that only allow a 20 percent stake by foreign investors in businesses and to the country's gaming tax, which is close to 60 percent.

"The government has a desire to see an increase in tourism," said Jan Jones, Harrah's senior vice president of government relations. "They also realize they need partnerships to realize that goal."

Jones said the current tax rate is prohibitive for Harrah's to see a return on its investment.

The casino would be Eastern Europe's largest, with 1,500 rooms, 2,000 slots, table games, convention and event space, clubs, bars, restaurants and a spa. The partnership is considering six building sites around the western city of Nova Gorica.

"We believe Europe is an excellent opportunity to bring a destination to a market that has high population and discretionary money," Jones said.

Eight million people live within 150 miles of the city while another 26 million live within 150 miles to 310 miles, Hit reports. The development, which Jones said would likely carry the Caesars brand, is expected to attract 4.5 million visitors a year.

The hotel would have 650 luxury rooms and be marketed worldwide, Harrah's Vice Chairman Chuck Atwood said in a statement. He expected 90 percent of the resort's customers to come from abroad

Also in a statement, Hit Chief Executive Officer Niko Trost said: "We intend for the project to serve as the tourist and entertainment center for the region."

The construction project is estimated to provide 4,500 jobs; the resort could provide as many as 3,200 jobs upon opening.

Slovenia's job market has been on the upswing with an unemployment rate in April of 7.9 percent, 2 percentage points lower over the previous year, the Slovenian Statistical Office reports.

Jones said the project would take approximately 30 months to complete if the amendments are adopted.

The project's size has raised concerns from the Catholic Church, to which 60 percent of Slovenians belong. A local bishop called the project "morally controversial," according to STA, Slovenia's English-language news service.

Hit now operates seven of the country's 18 casinos ranging in size from 50 slot machines to the 105-room hotel, 1,008 slot machine Hotel Casino Perla, also in Nova Gorica.

The company also owns two small casinos outside Slovenia; one in Serbia and Montenegro and the only one in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The project was first announced in late 2005 but Harrah's ownership share had not been determined.

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