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Inside Gaming Column: Tribal casinos no match for Las Vegas allure

16 Oct 2006

For years, boosters have seen tribal casinos in Southern California as challenging the Strip. But whatever casino executives say, SoCal city fathers are forlorn over the performance of even the newest hotel-casinos. Local officials and players both say the newest joints are drawing local crowds and ringing up gambling profits. But they're attracting few if any visitors. Meanwhile, business and leisure travelers are flocking instead to Las Vegas as a destination, not so much for the allure of any particular resorts, but because it has reached a critical mass in the hospitality industry that has no equal. "The rest of us might as well be hitchhiking as trying to bring in serious development dollars," one Southland official said.

The proposed buyout of Harrah's Entertainment by a pair of private equity investors should prove to be a long-term boost for Las Vegas, not a threat, private equity investment sources said last week. It should give the company breathing space to focus on using its massive land holdings on the Strip for their "highest and best use," rather than kowtowing to the quarterly demands of shareholders. It also means Harrah's could stabilize management, divest itself of peripheral properties elsewhere and drop speculative development plans, some of which may have been tailored to relieve short-term pressures on stock performance. Private-equity firms Apollo Management and Texas Pacific Group have offered more than $15.5 billion to buy Harrah's.

Public opinion may be running against gaming. There's an item on the Nov. 7 ballot in Ohio to permit the operation of 31,500 slot machines at seven commercial horse racing tracks and two proposed casinos. If approved, the slot machines would bring in approximately $2.8 billion a year and generate $852.7 million more for state coffers. A few years ago, when states were dying for cash, the vote would have been a slam dunk. But recent surveys show it's in a tailspin, with honesty in government commanding the attention of Ohio voters, whose elected officials are mired in charges of sleaze.

The new Internet gaming ban passed by Congress and signed by President Bush could cut wagers in the World Series of Poker by more than half, sources say. Half the entrants in the final $10,000 championship event were sponsored through Web sites in 2006. The new law will make it illegal to transfer money over the Internet to gambling operators. That could spell a far smaller crowd at the World Series here next year. And it could mean a lot less exciting television exposure for Las Vegas' leading industry. Insiders say this is another reason to think through prohibition versus regulation.

Gaming Wire Editor Rod Smith can be reached by phone at 477-3893 or by e-mail at rsmith@reviewjournal.com.

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