Casino battle is a sure bet

It will be a casino to rival some of the best in Las Vegas and would bring thousands of jobs to the West Midlands.

Plans to introduce the country’s first super casino are well under way but an unlikely battle has broken out in the second city.

Two of its best known landmarks are fighting to become Birmingham’s bid for the giant casino complex.

And the race – between the NEC and Birmingham City FC – to reach the short list is attracting national attention.

Indeed, Tuesday’s Financial Times told the money men of The City that the Birmingham battle had become „a public slanging match“. Some journalistic licence there, perhaps. The MGM Mirage group, backers of the NEC bid, will fairly point out that they have gone public solely with details of what they would do. The other bid does not interest them.

But Las Vegas Sands, backers of the Birmingham City plan, are anything but coy, taking every opportunity to go into print under a „People versus the Suits“ tag line.

By Monday night, the inner cabinet of Birmingham City Council has to back one bid to go forward. By December, the shortlist, approved by the Casino Advisory Board, will be announced, and in March we will know where the Government wants it to be.

Blackpool are the bookies‘ favourite. Birmingham seems more logical. Within days of Andrew Morris swapping the top job at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre in his native London for the chief executive’s chair at the NEC, 18 months ago, the super casino has been taking up a fair slice of his time.

Last December the city council tried to bring the two parties together to go with one bid. A compromise was never likely and failed at the first hurdle.

Karren Brady says she hopes the city council wouldn’t let its emotional attachment to the NEC cloud its judgment.

The NEC version is that all the profit they make goes straight to its landlords and benefits everyone. For a man so close to knowing if his company’s bid is successful – it would produce £350 million pounds of income for the city council over ten years – Andrew Morris is remarkably laidback.

But when he talks about the bid, he is passionate, committed and erudite.

„It would be of significant benefit as a destination centre. Business people who attend conferences spend around 50 per cent of their time looking at trade stands and being delegates. The other 50 per cent is spent socialising, networking and in hotels. A casino complex would focus on added value that we lack at the moment,“ he says.

Solihull Council has had one complaint – a letter objecting on moral grounds. Birmingham City in contrast have had 6,000 local residents and tradespeople objecting on religious and neighbourhood standpoints. But the decision will be be made on neither.

The NEC, who teamed up with MGM Mirage, the huge US casino empire, scotch arguments that they don’t fulfil the number one criteria that the whole site and plan must regenerate an area. „The Government’s wish list is social impact, regeneration and deliverability in that order – simple as that,“ says Mr Morris.

All of which is in stark contrast to Birmingham City’s bid, backed by Las Vegas Sands and fronted by their MD, Karren Brady. Still recovering from recent brain surgery, Sands’s MD, Roger Brody, has been adding the final public comments to their bid. It involves spending £55 million making the site safe – the land is contaminated to such an extent that the council have never been able to afford to clean it up. In return they will build a 55,000 all seater sports stadium and casino, a 59-acre sports village and almost 6,500 new jobs, guaranteeing at least half will be for a local workforce.

„It’ll be open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. There’ll be athletics, 50-metre pools suitable for events like the Commonwealth Games, community centres, a hotel and affordable local housing. We have talked to Warwickshire about staging cricket there as well,“ said Mr Brody.

„One of the problems we have faced and why some local people have got worried is because the Daily Mail scared readers saying there were going to be up to 40 casinos – or even more – dotted about the country, so now the Casino Advisory Board have brought that down to just one super casino and eight regional or smaller ones.“ Mr Brody ran a family textile business in London and came to the job with no experience of gambling at all. He was asked at a cocktail party where he would start if American business wanted to get into building large casinos in the UK. „My feeling was that there were lots of football clubs, short of money with land to spare only used 20-odd days a year as car parks. They liked the idea and hired me,“ he said.

He remains adamant that the NEC bid hasn’t a hope. „They are losing nine million pounds a year, and it’s a great way to make up the deficit as they are 90 per cent owned by the council,“ he added.

„The catalyst“, he claims, is regeneration „and they fail at the first hurdle on that“.

And like the NEC bid, he’s concerned that the city council have only until March 31 to bid for a regional or smaller casino – if the super casino bid fails.

Mr Brody points to the fact that Birmingham City’s bid is an obligation to get the best value, combines everything the bid wants, is in a rundown area – in fact is in the most deprived parliamentary constituency in the UK, with 25 per cent out of work.

He also lauded the work and image of Karren Brady who fronted the bid.

Back at the NEC, Andrew Morris said he recognised the potential their bid had, as soon as he came into office.

„Accessibility and the demographics make it an obvious choice“, he said.

He won’t be in Birmingham when the city councillors announce their choice on Monday. He flies to Hong Kong today, bidding to stage in November 2009 the prestigious ITU Telecom world show.

It’s a major pitch for a show that would bring in £200 million for the region. He’s competing against Paris, Geneva and Dubai.

„If we win the chance to have the super casino, it will be a huge vote swayer for this show, and the core business we can attract is incalculable,“ he said.

Perhaps the last word best befits the NEC‘s marketing and communications director Debbie Smith. „We at the NEC are painted as a collection of sheds in Solihull. Civic pride is hurt. Every penny this proposal would make would go straight to the city council. So that description is particularly galling,“ she said.

In its infancy the NEC was derided as „certain to be a white elephant“. How wrong that view was. As Birmingham City struggle to go into a fifth season in the Premiership, their MD, ironically a Solihull council tax payer, hopes the city fathers see it her way.

Whichever, there will be recriminations and possibly sour grapes.