Gambling Magnet for the Rich or Money Pit?

The ground-level casino is still open, but its rusty entryway and stained carpeting give little hint of its rich past. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the game rooms were empty, except for a few locals leaning over a roulette table lit by a bronze chandelier or slumping at a bank of 10-cent slot machines with names like "Neon Nights" and "Cleopatra."

Last year, the casino brought in only $60,000, making the $540,000 generated by the decidedly low key, city-owned Parque Hotel casino -- attached to the headquarters of the Mercosur regional trading block -- seem like a windfall.

"It's an embarrassment," Rodriguez said. "In one of the most attractive neighborhoods in the capital, an entrance to the entire city, you find a building in terrible shape."

Socialist Government Seeks Private Help

That Montevideo is ready to put the casino in private hands is itself a sign of its desperation. Uruguay, led by Socialist President Tabare Vazquez, is known for its state enterprises. The federal government operates the national electricity monopoly; water utility; oil refinery and most gas stations. It also controls the country's fixed telephone lines and competes in the mobile phone market.

Several of the federally owned casinos are managed by private companies, such as Maronas Entertainment. But only one, the 296-room Conrad Resort & Casino in upscale Punta del Este, has been fully privatized, according to Rodríguez.

City officials, however, said they have neither the bankroll nor the expertise to turn Montevideo into Monte Carlo. Though the plans submitted by the bidders are private, the proposals are expected to be extravagant. Employment at the complex, for example, will likely jump from 50 city workers to a staff of as many as 500.

The Rambla riverside promenade sits opposite the Carrasco Casino Hotel.

Hyatt, backed by Argentine investors, has offered to open 102 rooms and suites, a 27,000 square-foot casino, a spa, a restaurant and at least 5,000 square feet of event space for conferences, Myles McGourty, Hyatt's senior vice president for Latin America, said in an interview.

"It's going to back to the old glamorous casinos," he said. "It's going be a high-end gaming facility with a focus on table games."

The city government, which has about a $300 million budget, has asked for a $1 million annual fee from the casino operator and a share of revenue. That second component will vary in each proposal and play a part in the final evaluation, along with architectural design and business plan. (In preliminary results just released, the panel reviewing the proposals appeared to be favoring Accor, according a leading Uruguayan newspaper, El País.)

Attracting the Jet-Set Crowd

The leftist party that governs Montevideo, home to about half of this country's 3.5 million residents, said that all earnings from the casino will be funneled to poor neighborhoods. But city and federal officials have a higher hope for the project: putting Montevideo on the jet-setter's radar.

The remaining games include 10-cent slot machines with names like "Neon Nights" and "Cleopatra."

That might be a big gamble. Uruguay has always been overshadowed by its giant neighbors, and Montevideo's reputation as a safer and calmer Buenos Aires has not persuaded many European and American tourists to add a stop across the Río de la Plata to their holiday itinerary.

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