Sands Bethlehem is one of the most successful Pennsylvania casinos. But in the rough-and-tumble casino industry, you’re either growing or you’re dying. Sands doesn’t want to fall into the latter category… so long as the growth is on the land-based side of the industry; not online gambling.

According to the Morning Call, Sands Bethlehem has submitted plans for a $40 million, 100,000-square-foot expansion project. About a third of the square footage would be gaming space, including a new poker room that would open up space on the main casino floor for other table games.

The Morning Call reports that the, “Plans call for knocking out the north wall of the casino — now lined by slot machines — to build a two-story expansion.” It goes on to say that the newly created floor space would include, “restaurants with 215 seats and the additional gambling space, which would give the casino more than 180,000 square feet of casino floor. The addition would be 97,301 square feet.”

Relocating the poker room is the key

The current poker room at Sands Bethlehem is ill-designed and oddly located in the center of the casino.

Not only is this prime casino real estate, but the poker room is only separated from the rest of the casino floor by a railing, allowing the sounds and lights of the casino’s slot machines to be a constant distraction to players. Essentially, the location of the poker room isn’t beneficial to the players or the casino.

Because of this, the project seems to be built around moving the poker room to a new dedicated location at the back of the casino, which would free up some of the most heavily trafficked space on the casino floor.

Table game cap complicates the project

Problematic in all of this is Pennsylvania’s table game cap.

Sands currently has 237 table games, just 13 shy of the 250 cap imposed by the state. If the project calls for more table games it would require the approval of Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, something that is far from guaranteed, but isn’t unheard of.

However, there are ways around this that would allow Sands to call this a table-game expansion without exceeding the 250 game cap.

One possibility would be for Sands to move its poker room to the new location, and fill the vacated space with the slot machines from the back wall that is knocked down and/or the 13 table games it’s capable of adding.

Another possibility starts the same, with the poker room being moved to the new location. Instead of adding table games on the main casino floor, the new poker room would be expanded by 13 tables, with the slot machines and/or some type of bar or restaurant put in its former location.

Yet another possibility would be for Sands to add more “stadium gambling” games. According to PGCB spokesperson Richard McGarvey, the board considers every five positions in a stadium gambling setup one table game.

This would allow Sands to add up to 65 stadium gambling seats — the current stadium gambling setup at Sands Bethlehem has 150 seats. Smaller versions have been set up at the Sands-owned Palazzo in Las Vegas.

Leverage against online gambling?

Of Pennsylvania’s 12 land-based casinos, Sands is the only property opposing the legalization and regulation of online gambling. Prohibiting online gambling is a battle Las Vegas Sands Corp.’s Sheldon Adelson has been waging for several years.

Unsurprisingly, Sands has intimated the proposed project is contingent on Pennsylvania not legalizing online gambling. It is also likely contingent on the North Jersey casino referendum that will be decided in November, although the company hasn’t commented on this publicly.

“I don’t know where they think all these new customers are coming from, but we’re certainly not going to continue to make a commitment to reinvest if they follow through with this,” Sands CEO Mark Juliano said in June in regards to the possible addition of slot machines at OTB locations and in bars and taverns. Juliano’s comments were also made when online gambling momentum was at a high point.

Still, despite his company’s opposition to PA online casinos, Juliano also said that online gambling legalization wouldn’t be the end of Sands investment in Pennsylvania. “Fundamentally opposed to online gaming, yes,” Juliano said in the same interview. “But would it keep us from investing? Probably not.”

Still, it’s not difficult to imagine Sands using this $40 million capital investment as a bargaining chip against online gambling legalization. Because it’s being billed as a table games expansion, it would bring about more jobs than a slot machine expansion where very few jobs would be added.

Beyond moral opposition, there are very few legitimate reasons for lawmakers to oppose online gambling legalization, but a loss of capital investment that would bring jobs to the area is one.

*This column was edited on 10/3 to clarify reporting from the Morning Call.