Origins of Sands Bethlehem

Bethlehem on the banks of the Lehigh River was founded in 1741 as a planned community by a band of Moravian missionaries. The self-sufficient Germanic emigrants wasted no time in building industry – more than three dozen trades and mills were in operation within five years.

Goods from Bethlehem were known throughout the American colonies. This heritage of manufacturing braced Bethlehem perfectly for the oncoming Industrial Revolution. When the Lehigh Canal opened in 1829, quickly followed by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, Bethlehem became a nationally known center of heavy industry. America’s zinc industry was centered here and iron companies were established by the 1850s. Into this environment was born the Bethlehem Iron Company in 1861.

By 1904 the company was known as Bethlehem Steel and was operating out of the largest industrial building in the world. That year Charles Michael Schwab took over the operation and he was to transform both the business and the old Moravian town.

Only 39 years old, Schwab had already been president of United States Steel, the largest company in the world. He would soon make the new Bethlehem Steel Corporation the second largest steel manufacturer on the planet and America’s king of shipbuilding. When World War II arrived more than a warship a day was built in Bethlehem Steel’s drydocks.

By the 1980s, however, Bethlehem Steel had become a symbol of America’s manufacturing malaise. Orders increasingly went to cheaper overseas steel suppliers. In 1992 the blast furnaces went cold and by 2001 the once mighty company was no more.

In the wake of the Bethlehem Steel bankruptcy the city was left with 1,500 acres of vacant land, miles of unused train tracks and scores of abandoned factories. In a fortuitous stroke of good fortune, however, the city did not have to wait long before a redevelopment savior appeared on the horizon.

Las Vegas Sands was awarded one of the five free-standing casino licenses as provided by the 2004 Pennsylvania Horse Race Development and Gaming Act. Rather than tear down the historic Bethlehem plant the Nevada gaming company decided to incorporate its casino as much as possible into the existing infrastructure.

But before the casino could be built the largest brown field clean-up in history had to be executed, even though Las Vegas Sands owned only 124 acres of the site. Where new construction was required exposed piping and rough brick walls were designed to match the look of the old factories. Lighting experts bathed the exterior of Bethlehem’s five blast furnaces in fiery reds and blues to conjure up images of molten metal.

The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem opened in 2009. Ironically, there were construction delays impeding its arrival – there was a worldwide steel shortage at the time.

The Sands’ market and 4-Diamond award

The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem stepped into the middle of one of the most competitive gaming markets in the country. There are some 40 slots parlors, racinos, and full-amenity casinos within the Philadelphia-Atlantic City-New York triangle in which it competes. Las Vegas Sands aimed at the high end of the market that includes over 17 million people within a 90-minute ride.

The management team installed a luxury hotel and recruited celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse to open Emeril’s Chop House as one of the four on-site restaurants.

The efforts have been rewarded with one of only two 4-Diamond ratings awarded to Pennsylvania casinos by the American Automobile Association. Mount Airy Casino and Resort, its nearest competitor, earned the other.

Where Sands ranks in Pennsylvania

With 152 table games and 3013 slot machines, Sands rivals Parx Casino as Pennsylvania’s largest in terms of games offered and total revenue. The $165 million in revenue from table games is by far the state’s largest haul.

Las Vegas Sands and Sheldon Adelson

The legendary Sands Hotel opened as the seventh casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip in 1952. When Frank Sinatra, who had an ownership stake, started hanging out there it became the place to embodiment of Hollywood cool.

It was the shooting locale for the 1960 movie Ocean’s 11 which introduced the world to the Rat Pack – Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. The stars all performed on stage in the Copa Room in between takes on the set.

Howard Hughes bought the Sands in 1967 and installed the circular hotel tower that became a Las Vegas Strip landmark.

In 1989 the property was acquired by trade show magnate Sheldon Adelson. The first thing he did was implode the Sands Hotel and replace it with a glitzy mega-resort called the Venetian. He later added an elegant boutique casino called the Palazzo Resort on the Strip. Today, 2,500 miles from Las Vegas in an old industrial town, the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem is the only American casino to carry the famous nameplate.

The 80-year old Adelson, who is among the richest men in the world, has pioneered casino gambling in China where he now operates three properties and has spent over $5 billion to build the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

Despite his wide-flung gaming interests, the biggest contributor to the Las Vegas Sands empire is still in the convention business. His Sands Expo and Convention Center, built across the street from the site of the original Sands Hotel in 1990, is the second largest convention center in the world and the only privately owned such facility in the United States.

Sands Bethlehem’s poker room

When Pennsylvania legalized table games in 2010 the Sands opted to carve out space in the middle of the gaming floor for its poker “room.” While smokier and noisier than some players may prefer the poker room was so popular the number of tables was increased to 36.

As with other Sands properties the top tournament is the Deep Stack Extravaganza that is held several times during the year and has offered as much as $500,000 in guaranteed prize money.

Sands’ event center and shops

Since opening, the Sands has continued to polish the edges of its one-of-a-kind facility.

The Outlets at Sands Bethlehem, an indoor smorgasbord of brand name shops, was added in 2011 to link the hotel to the casino. The Sands Bethlehem Event Center is a multipurpose space that can seat 2,250 music lovers for concerts or morph into meeting and convention space.

The most recent innovation to the old industrial site was not built by Las Vegas Sands but paid for by casino-generated tax money on land the Sands sold the city for one dollar. SteelStacks is an award-winning cultural center and public park set against the dramatic backdrop of the Bethlehem Steel smokestacks.

Sands’ potential in Pennsylvania online gaming

Sheldon Adelson is the richest and most enthusiastic opponent of online poker in the US. So unless he experiences a drastic 180 degree change of heart, it seems Sands Bethlehem has a zero percent chance of acquiring an online gaming license if and when an online poker bill passes in the Pennsylvania state legislature.

Image CyberXRef / CC BY-SA 3.0

Steve Ruddock

Steve Ruddock

Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.