Slovene's sceptical about benefits of a big gambling complex

Plans for constructing a massive casino complex on Slovenia's border with Italy have opened up a rift between some residents and local authorities. Some groups are even calling for a nationwide referendum on it.

The chips haven't started rolling yet, but backers of a new gaming resort in the border town of Nova Gorica are hoping it won't be much longer now. US gaming giant Harrah's entertainment and their Slovenian partner HIT are planning a gigantic 750-million-euro resort and casino near Slovenia's border with Italy. All in all, there are plans for 2,000 slot and game machines and hundreds of tables as well as various other amenities. What it will look like exactly is still unclear; something that caused concern among local authorities.

Harrah's senior executive Jan Jones arrived in the country at the end of July to meet with local mayors and discuss the project. She promised that concrete plans would come soon, and acknowledged that mayors were anxious to see what was coming.

"That was one of the major concerns of the mayors. They're very anxious to begin to see - if not the exact rendering concepts. And we've promised that, coming in September, we will bring - if not the exact report - pictures that will show you what kind of resort is envisioned. And more importantly, what the amenities of that resort would be: conference centers, pools, spas... So the initial images we will have when I come back in September."

Another big question mark is where the resort will go. Six potential locations have been floated, but no firm decision has yet been reached. According to the Mayor of Sempeter-Vrtojba, Dragan Valencic, this mystery has caused problems for real estate prices in the area:

"We don't know the location yet, because there are still six potential areas. But the prices of real estate have risen in the entire area. If one location would be verified, then we would only have to worry about that area. But now we have to worry about six."

Although the mayors generally sounded optimistic about the plan, the public has mixed feelings. A recent poll by the newspaper Delo found that while 38% of people believe the resort will boost the local economy and tourism industry, 25% said the government should restrict gaming tourism on ethical grounds. Perhaps more troubling for the project's backers: the emergence of a grassroots campaign against the casino. The ad hoc Civil Initiative for Vipava is pushing for a national referendum on the resort. Company officials have declined to say whether they would respect the outcome of a referendum, but it would clearly be an unwelcome hurdle to the project.

The Roman Catholic Church has also expressed its opposition. Local mayors, meanwhile, generally seemed to support the project, despite a lack of data. They were promised that all the necessary infrastructure requirements would be created in association with the community. The investors promise to pay for the majority of these infrastructure improvements.

The Prime Minister of Slovenia blamed a lack of information for most problems, criticizing HIT for not being clearer about their intentions. The Slovenian government has already given its backing to the project, even changing legislation to allow a foreign company greater control. He stressed that the gaming part of the resort (planned at about 1/5 of the total area) was being overemphasized and that it was essentially a high-end global tourism project. HIT insists that its hands were tied by confidentiality agreements. It will hold meetings with the Finance Ministry in mid-August. A Harrah's representative will return to the country in September with more details of the project.