Bethlehem, PA — A safety officer at the mill for 26 years, Joe Koch felt each twist as Bethlehem Steel, a titan that armed the U.S. military and helped shape skylines across the country, careened into bankruptcy.
Fourteen years after the towering blast furnaces went cold, Koch and other former steelworkers are returning to their sprawling workplace as employees of Las Vegas Sands Corp., which is opening its first East Coast casino there Friday.
While the $743 million Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem pays the historic steel mill homage through its design and architecture, locals and company officials are primarily concerned about the future.
Las Vegas Sands, the casino giant led by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has been counting on Bethlehem to help reverse a slump: The company’s first-quarter loss widened to $87.7 million from $11.2 million a year earlier as revenue stagnated at $1.08 billion for the quarter. And city officials are eager to get the long-dormant property back to productive use.
Initially, the odds seem to be in Sands’ favor.
Pennsylvania’s casino industry grew 13.8 percent last month compared with a year earlier as it continued to expand its largely regional clientele, even while revenue is falling in destination gambling markets like Las Vegas and Atlantic City and in markets that have banned smoking. Sands Bethlehem expects to draw half its anticipated 5 million annual visitors from New York City and densely populated northern New Jersey, all within about 80 miles.
Sands preserved many mill buildings, including 20-story blast furnaces that distinguished the local skyline for 100 years and “the Steel’s” 1,500-foot-long No. 2 Machine Shop, once the world’s largest. It planned to incorporate some into the resort, but that will wait until the economy improves.
Citing the recession, Sands halted work last October on a convention center, shopping mall and 300-room hotel.
“The whole Bethlehem Steel story was the building and defending of America, and we wanted to respect that story through the architecture and design of the property,” said Robert DeSalvio, the casino’s president.
“You’ve got people all over the country that have connections to Bethlehem Steel, and I think there is generally a real warm feeling that now life has been brought back.”
New elements honoring the mill where 31,000 people once toiled include gabled roofs and the main building’s gunmetal-gray exterior, the exposed steel beams over the casino floor and the names of its bar and lounge — Molten and Coil. A massive crane emblazoned with the Sands insignia defines the casino’s entryway.
Koch and other Bethlehem Steel veterans are gratified by Sands’ efforts. Strolling through the engine house that powered the mill’s five blast furnaces, Koch recalls cleaning the giant flywheels while in college in the 1960s. The engine house is dirty now, and full of cobwebs. But at least it’s still there, he said.
“I don’t think there was anything worse than driving by the site as I watched it rust away. Nothing was happening,” said Koch, safety manager for the new casino. “I mean, the rebirth is great. … There’s new life being pumped into the veins, and some of the history of the site is clearly going to be preserved so generations coming forward can see what was here, what built America.”
Rich Fenstermacher, who worked various jobs at Bethlehem Steel for 34 years, is a security guard for the casino. His first day was the first time he’d been back in a decade.
“I was a young man when I started with Bethlehem Steel, and the fellows I met, I basically grew up with them in the Steel. We were family,” Fenstermacher said. “The simple fact is they’re honoring these steel-working men and women who worked in this plant.”
Sands, which debuts with 3,000 slot machines and four restaurants — including one created by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse — will be the eighth casino to open in Pennsylvania since the state legalized slots gambling in 2004. Casinos started opening in 2006.
Industry analyst Andrew Zarnett with Deutsche Bank predicts prosperity.
“Las Vegas Sands will greatly benefit from the opening of Sands Bethlehem … which we believe will be extremely successful given its proximity to key feeder markets of New York and New Jersey,” Zarnett said.