On what justifications do governments and communities support casino development? Clearly these justifications change over time and vary from context to context. From providing jobs to filling up state coffers, from urban renewal to attracting tourism, from exploiting geopolitical loopholes to tapping into clandestine trade and capital flow, it seems that the global casino industry is undergoing a phase of legalization and normalization. It might no longer be seen as the “last resort”, which was often how casino development was framed in the 80s in the US and Canada.
Increasingly, one of the justifications for casino development in Asia today is that these are only nominally casinos, but more accurately entertainment and business complexes. To prove this point, pro-casino lobbies point to Las Vegas where gaming related earnings hover at around 30% of total revenue. Thus, the Singapore government claimed that the Integrated Resort model earns at most 50% of its revenue from gaming. Later, at the Manila Bay Strip, the CEO of PAGCOR (the government-controlled company that runs all gaming related businesses in the Philippines), once again pointing to Las Vegas, claimed that the percentage is about 25%.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a static Las Vegas model which exhibits a specific distribution of revenue streams. Rather, this proportion is a reflection of market conditions and tax regimes. The proliferation of casino jurisdictions in the US ultimately led to the thinning out of gaming profits across the nation. In Macao, gaming contributes up to 90% of the revenue, while in Singapore, the proportion is about 70%. Both will probably go down over time not because this is an “integrated resort”, but because more Asian countries are jumping onto the casino bandwagon and political moods eventually change. The Singapore government did have a chance to radically change the business model by artificially suppressing the gaming component – the introduction of a Supertax where all gaming profits above a predetermined threshold would be creamed off by the state. Understandably, that met with a lot of resistance from the industry and did not come to pass.
Strangely, pro casino lobbies often ignore Singapore and Macau when talking about the proportionally low gaming revenue of this “Integrated Resort” model, but shove them back into view when talking about the potential profits, tax revenues and benefits to tourism. Singapore in particular is bandied about in industry discourse as an example of casino development without social costs, a smooth and tasteful concoction of painless tax and victimless crime. And so, despite the Singapore government’s attempt to efface the casino in its global image, it has become the poster boy of an industry it tries its hardest to distance itself from.
It is often interesting to use the case of Singapore as a foil to understand how casino development shapes and overwrites its urban context. Singapore’s case is peculiar because it is here that casino developers encountered, probably for the first time, a state bureaucracy that is immovable and resolute. Steve Wynn left in a fit because government planners did not fawn over his trademark architecture. Sheldon Adelson, reflecting on the building of Marina Bay Sands, gave a back-handed compliment that the Singapore government’s view is “supreme”, that there is no give and take. In other words, no one granted him any special favors. Such reactions are understandable considering the amount of freedom they enjoyed in Macau, and the generally loose regulatory oversight at the frontiers of capitalism where such industries can make the most profit. Casino developers can often gain the upper hand in bargaining given the amount of money they can potentially deliver to the local economy. And it must surely come as quite an insult for developers like Wynn whose reputation grew from his game-changing Bellagio that Singapore was not at all interested in his trademark architecture.
Just as there is nothing called an “Integrated Resort” model that is less a casino and more everything else, there is nothing rigid about the architectural and urban typology of the large scale casino-hotel. The argument that casino developments need large floor plates in order to be feasible is a lie. Las Vegas Sands tried to pull the old trick in Singapore, arguing that you cannot have a road cutting the building in half – hotel on one side and casino on the other. Sands wanted to swerve the road, amalgamate the site and so reproduce the Las Vegas typology where the casino is the spatial and circulation core of the complex. They even proposed to build a monorail that will link the casino to the international ferry terminal. All are tactics to change the city to serve the building, though casino developers often claim these to be technically necessary or done in the name of efficiency and even public good. The results of such tactics are very clearly displayed in Macau and the current debates at Barangaroo Bay, Sydney, very much repeat the same tricks:
In Las Vegas as well as Macau, casino developers prefer to replicate a formulaic architectural plan for a variety of reasons – it is proven and reproducible which cuts down cost and time in design and construction; it is surrounded by a pseudoscience which believes one can create “architectural reasons to gamble” – a pseudoscience created unsurprisingly by the industry itself; they have never had to think about the city except as a market; and they have never faced a strong planning bureaucracy.
In recent years, we are seeing changes to the plan – smaller vertically stacked casinos in crowded Macau, the dis-integrated resort of Marina Bay Sands, and residential serviced apt cum casinos in Las Vegas. As casino developers move into cities that are not desperate for money or have strong civil societies, they are learning to adapt to new environments – reports have emerged in the industry that advise casino designers to be more “contextual” so as not to rile local communities and attract too much attention.
In other words, there is nothing rigid about casino complex design – developers like to give the appearance that it is rigid and demanding for reasons of profit rather than practicality. Governments and civic groups should not bend backwards to accommodate – on the contrary, we should demand more and reject these princelings if they fail to prove their worth to the public’s interest.