When Las Vegas Sands Corp. said last year it had agreed to sell its Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem for $1.3 billion, many wondered what would become of the property, a major Lehigh Valley destination.
The answers are beginning to surface.
Wind Creek Hospitality of Alabama is waiting for regulators to bless its purchase of the resort, but company officials already have plans if and when that occurs.
During a recent visit to the casino they revealed plans to invest $190 million in a new hotel and redevelopment project on the property.
“We are well aware of local desires to see the site bought back,” said James Dorris, president and CEO of Wind Creek, a privately held affiliate of the Porch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama, which operates six casinos, track and poker rooms in Alabama, Florida, Nevada and the Caribbean. It also runs a greyhound and horseracing track in Mobile, Alabama.
Las Vegas Sands built the casino, hotel, and outlet mall and event center for $800 million. The casino opened in 2009 and has about 2,500 employees.
The sale to Wind Creek includes the casino, the event center, the outlet mall, a hotel and several other vacant buildings on the former Bethlehem Steel land.
The idea of buying the Bethlehem property arose in 2014 when Wind Creek realized it needed to diversify its assets.
“Several years back we had a meeting with the board of directors and tribal council,” Dorris said. “At that point, all our revenues came from Alabama. We looked at a lot of different areas. This came to our attention. We looked at it and thought it would make a good deal for us.”
Dorris said the Sands Bethlehem property complements Wind Creek’s Alabama properties. Sands has table games, for example, while Wind Creek’s other properties do not.
Generally, gaming appears to be a growing market, according to Dorris. But it is not the only factor that drew Wind Creek to Bethlehem.
Wind Creek’s interest in redeveloping the site and adding a second hotel has sparked a sense of optimism among Sands officials. While Sands added a hotel, event center and outlet mall to the casino, further redevelopment stalled. Many of the surrounding Sands-owned parcels west of the casino are vacant and crumbling, with further redevelopment at a halt.
“The sooner we make this a destination where it’s not all about gambling, the better it’s going to be for Bethlehem,” said Brian Carr, president and COO of Sands Bethlehem. He will remain the property’s president and COO after the sale.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has to approve the deal, which could happen in the first quarter.
Once the deal closes, Wind Creek officials said they would look at immediately redeveloping parts of the property and building the second hotel to meet the demand for rooms. Plans call for a 300-room hotel connected to the existing hotel, which has 282 rooms.
Wind Creek also wants to rename the casino Wind Creek Bethlehem. The name change would take place quickly.
“We agreed to do that within 90 days of the close; that’s part of the purpose of the meetings … to identify every one of those spots to change to Wind Creek Bethlehem,” Dorris said of the reason behind his recent trip to the Lehigh Valley. More trips are likely as the deal comes closer to closing.
One of the first targets for redevelopment is a building known as Machine Shop No. 2.
The building, which is the closest building to the casino, covers 300,000 square feet and is the largest vacant structure on the property. The building, once eyed for a Bass Pro Shops retail store, offers potential for meeting and conference space, Dorris said.
“We think this property overall is in really good shape,” Dorris said.