Blackjack And Mickey Vs. Urban Blight

Just a few miles from the casinos that dominate Las Vegas' glittery Strip, there's another world that tourists seldom see. Downtown Vegas, once the center of the gambling world, is now the haunt of drug dealers and prostitutes. But in a remarkable bet, the city of Las Vegas has given eight casino owners the responsibility for revitalizing a four-block area of downtown. Funded mostly by the city, the $63 million Fremont Street Project would raze the old pawn shops to make way for tony stores and nightly laser shows.

Vegas is not alone in reaching out to the entertainment industry for help. Increasingly, revenue-starved city governments are welcoming entertainment companies and their cash-carrying customers as the newest means to combat stubborn urban ills. "When the tax money you can bring in can build a hospital, or the place you build can provide jobs to a city's unemployed, you always get a warm reception," says Promus Cos. President Philip G. Satre, whose company is building a string of Harrah's casinos and riverboats throughout the country. "It's a reception we weren't getting a few years ago."

ARENA PANACEA? Indeed, casinos now possess a powerful allure for needy city governments. Joliet, Ill., has renovated its train station and its library, using the $1.5 million a month in taxes paid by a new riverboat casino. Philadelphia and Boston may legalize casinos to ease budget woes, while Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley is pushing state legislators to approve a huge casino complex that could add about 18,000 jobs.

Casinos aren't the only projects being embraced as urban panaceas. After the success of Baltimore's new downtown baseball stadium, Camden Yards, other cities, such as Cleveland and Denver, are viewing new stadiums and arenas as a tool to lure visitors--and their money--to struggling neighborhoods.

And entertainment is the anchor for one of the country's toughest urban-redevelopment projects: New York City's Times Square. In early February, Walt Disney Co. announced that it would spend $8 million to restore the 91-year-old New Amsterdam Theater, located in a porn-infested neighborhood. The reborn theater could generate $54 million in annual tax revenue and economic activity. City officials now envision luring an interactive version of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and other attractions to the area.

But as the sad case of Atlantic City demonstrates, entertainment is no cure-all. The struggling city legalized casino gambling in 1978, but few of the hoped-for benefits have materialized. Only 10,000 of the city's 46,000 casino workers are locals. And while the casinos have paid about $2.5 billion in taxes to the state, little has trickled down to the town. Only lately has the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority--the recipient of the money--shown signs of activity. The CRDA has built 1,600 new housing units and this year will build the city's first new supermarket in 25 years. The agency is also helping fund a new $520 million retail and entertainment complex.

DUCKS FOR GUNS. Sometimes, as in Las Vegas, the entertainment companies themselves take steps to clean up the area around them. In Anaheim, Calif., where gangs roam just a mile from Disneyland, Disney has been negotiating to help upgrade a 20-square-block area around its new park site. In addition, Disney recently collected 106 handguns that were redeemed for tickets to Mighty Ducks hockey games.

Such efforts by themselves are not enough. But at a time when many people are ready to give up on distressed cities, the willingness of entertainment companies to lend a helping hand can only be a hopeful sign.

By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles, with Joseph Weber in Philadelphia and Richard A. Melcher in Chicago

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