Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem
A few weeks ago I saw an AP article by Michael Rubinkam on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (picked up by the Boston Globe) that struck me as both telling and sad. The article spoke of how a good part of the old Bethlehem Steel plant site is being dismantled to make way for a casino complex being built by Las Vegas Sands Corp, the outfit that brought us the Venetian. The complex will include a hotel, convention, center, and a casino housing 5,000 slot machines.
Mayor John Callahan said the casino complex will help resurrect the long-dormant Bethlehem Steel property, regarded as the nation's largest brownfield.
"It will be one of the most unique economic development projects in the country, and people will come far and wide to see it," he said. "It will be a national model for the redevelopment of an industrial site."
God knows it's not worth lamenting the demise of the American industrial economy. It is, however, worth lamenting the loss of well-paid industrial jobs - even those at Bethlehem Steel that are long gone. Casino employment might look pretty good to folks in a job-starved area, but the jobs that come with casinos aren't really all that much of a substitute - not in the same way that other sorts of "real jobs" - call center, technology, biotech, light manufacture - would have been.
Did Bethlehem try - and fail - to remake itself for the post-industrial economy? Have they given up, thrown in the towel, and figured that a casino is better than nothing? Do they really see this as a good alternative? Does Mayor Callahan really believe that Bethlehem will be "a national model for the redevelopment of an industrial site"?
No doubt there's a lot of Bethlehem babies in need of a new pair of shoes, but relying on gambling to revive an area's economy always strikes me as a house of cards.
I'm sure that the Las Vegas Sands people did all the calculations needed to figure out the economic feasibility of this project - (pi x the distance to Atlantic City)/median age in Pennsylvania - or whatever the equation is. But it's hard to see that this site will do more than attract busloads of pensioners willing to blow a bit of their Social Security check each month while reminiscing about what it was like to live in the United States when we actually made things here. (Among the things made at Bethlehem Steel: the steel used to build the Golden Gate Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and all sorts of warships.)
Convention center? Good luck. A think tank for labor scholars trying to help figure out how we will make our way through the continuing, painful transition to a fully global economy - and just what it is that the folks who have traditionally held blue collar, manufacturing jobs are going to be doing in it - might have been a better choice.
Some parts of the plant will be retained in the casino complex:
[Las Vegas] Sands plans to save more than 20 buildings -- including the 1,500-foot-long No. 2 Machine Shop, once the world's largest -- and incorporate many of them into its plan for a destination resort ...
Also staying put are the iconic, 20-story blast furnaces that have helped define Bethlehem's skyline for 100 years. Sands will install architectural lighting to spotlight them.
Not exactly the fountains at the Bellagio, or the gondolas at the Venetian, but there is something bracingly real about the sights at Bethlehem, aren't there? Spotlighting a dormant blast furnace. Well, it beats the fake Eiffel Tower and Brooklyn Bridge on The Strip.
Other parts of the old plant will be salvaged:
An1885 press and the pumping engine that operated it will be saved -- left behind as monuments. Eventually, a parking lot will surround them.
Okay. I've never been to Bethlehem PA, but I'm guessing we're not exactly talking "paved Paradise and put up a parking lot" here. Working in a steel mill had to be dirty, smelly, hot, and dangerous.
But it's also dangerous to believe that casinos are the answer to the question "what are we going to do to bolster our economy." Every rustbelt survivor can't put up a casino and assume that it will make everything better. There's a pyramid scheme element to the whole thing, isn't there? If every location has a casino, what's the big draw? Who's going to come gambling? What's going to be generating the income to pay for all those rolls of quarters?
Good luck to the little town of Bethlehem. They're going to need it if they think that economic salvation comes from a row of cherries.