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McClatchy-Tribune  04/30/2014 5:50 PM ET
Bethlehem Sands license is renewed by Gaming Board [The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) :: ]

April 30--Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem may be having a difficult year during which its website has been hacked, its president resigned and its parent company has been trying to sell it, but the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board wouldn't mind having a dozen casinos just like it.

The gaming board Wednesday unanimously renewed the license of the Sands casino for another three years, calling it a model of what the board has been trying to do statewide.

The renewal came during an hour-long hearing in Harrisburg in which Sands' interim President Douglas S. Niethold argued that the world's largest gambling company has exceeded the promises it made when first awarded a license to do business on former Bethlehem Steel land .

"More than seven years ago, Las Vegas Sands agreed to build a world-class facility and be a strong corporate partner in the community," Niethold said. "We wanted to bring the Sands to the community and redevelop that whole property, and we've done that."

Niethold got no disagreement from board members.

"You are the envy of many," said gaming board member Keith R. McCall. "You are a model corporate citizen. I wish all of our casinos could emulate you."

Niethold took the helm at Sands in March, after its longtime President Robert DeSalvio resigned to help Wynn Resorts compete for a casino license in Massachusetts. Niethold takes over as the Bethlehem casino tried to deal with a recent cyber attack of its website, and as sources say its parent company, Las Vegas Sands, talks with Tropicana Entertainment about selling the Bethlehem property.

During the hearing Wednesday, Niethold detailed the casino's $830 million investment to build a complex that includes more than 3,000 slot machines, 200 table games, a hotel, an outlet mall, several restaurants and an events center. And he noted that's well beyond the $600 million that Sands agreed to spend when its license was first issued.

But what matters most to the gaming board is tax revenues from the casino, and jobs created. In that regard, Sands is arguably the state's most success casino. Last year, the $180 million in state taxes it paid was second only to the $219 paid by Parx Casino in Bensalem. But the nearly 2,800 people working at the Bethlehem complex -- 90 percent of whom are full time -- is easily the most of any of the 12 state gambling halls, with Parx at a distant second with 1,825 employees.

The hearing was not all compliments and backslapping. Gaming board officials did ask Niethold for an update on the February incident in which hackers breached the Sands website and gained access to the personal information, including Social Security numbers.

"How many were affected by the February cyber attack?" asked board member Greg Fagt.

"Initially we knew of 70,000 who could have been affected," Niethold said. "A more [updated list] shows that number to be closer to 30,000."

Niethold said Sands has offered one year of identity theft protection to everyone who could be affected, an offer 7,000 have accepted.

The gaming board's enforcement bureau also noted that since 2010 the Sands has been fined $174,000 for 16 incidents in which underage patrons were allowed in the casino, where they either illegally gambled or drank alcohol.

Michael Roland, an investigator with the board's enforcement bureau, added that Sands is about to be fined again for a yet-to-be-released collection of six violations in which underage patrons were allowed in the casino.

"You've had a difficult time keeping track of underage gamers," Roland said.

"Obviously, minors still present a challenge to us and the entire Pennsylvania gaming industry," Niethold said. "It's an ongoing battle that we work on diligently all the time. We do our best to keep the casino floor free of minors and we'd like nothing more than to see some legislation that would add penalties with some teeth for any minor that enters the casino floor."

Niethold said Sands now attracts more patrons 30 and younger than ever. Its security forces last year turned away nearly 9,000 patrons who were trying to enter the casino flow while underage -- double the number of the previous year.

The license renewal gives Sands the right to continue running a casino in Pennsylvania for three more years, when another renewal would be needed.

matthew.assad@mcall.com

610-820-6691

 

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