Madrid is the landlocked heart of Spain. But Valdecarros—the southernmost stop on the light-blue subway line—feels like the end of the world. The view is desolate, and the smell foul; an aroma of rotten eggs wafts from a nearby dump. More menacing than the odor are the cranes, peering out over squat, half-built housing units in every direction.
Tens of thousands of these units, and whole retail communities along with them, were once planned for Valdecarros. Now, in Spain’s fourth year of recession, the cranes stand motionless. Abandoned construction sites are strewn across the country’s urban fringes, and draconian austerity measures—including $80 billion in combined budget cuts and tax hikes—have battered its economy. In June, faced with plummeting credit ratings and nearly 25 percent unemployment, the Spanish government agreed to a bank bailout from the European Union.
Yet where most observers see ruin, Sheldon Adelson sees opportunity. The American casino mogul, who made his early billions in Las Vegas and has since expanded his gambling empire to Pennsylvania, Macau, and Singapore, bet early and heavily on Newt Gingrich’s ill-fated presidential campaign (he’s since opened his war chest to Mitt Romney). Meanwhile, Adelson was also banking on Spain’s distress, announcing last year his plans to build a gambling development on Spanish soil, a venture now projected to cost $35 billion and to include 12 resorts, nine theaters, six casinos, three golf courses, and a stadium. He calls it “EuroVegas.”
A healthy tourism industry and accessible location had long made Spain a lucrative gateway into Europe. But Adelson, it seems, likes Spain even better in sickness than in health. He told an investors’ conference in September that high unemployment guaranteed government support for his project. At a recent industry event in New York, the president of Las Vegas Sands, Adelson’s company, joked: “Sheldon calls it EuroVegas, but maybe the euro won’t be around when we go to build it.”
For more than a year, Adelson publicly deliberated whether to take his business to Madrid or Barcelona. Both cities crave the project and have engaged in a debasing game of one-upsmanship that has reinvigorated their age-old national rivalry. This spring, Spanish newspapers reported that both were considering lifting restrictions on foreign workers’ visas and offering exemptions from gambling taxes and social-security payouts. Esperanza Aguirre, Madrid’s staunchly conservative regional president and a sympathizer of America’s Tea Party, has aggressively championed Valdecarros and another location on the city’s outskirts as EuroVegas sites. She’s even promised to allow smoking in casinos—never mind that federal law prohibits the practice. The Barcelona government, meanwhile, has trotted out its cultural trademarks. Ferran Adrià, head chef at the fallen gastronomic temple El Bulli, cooked for Adelson’s entourage during one of its Barcelona visits and has pledged his support for the project. And Barcelona officials have suggested riffing off the style of the iconic architect Antoni Gaudí to infuse the project with “Catalan flavor.”
The biggest challenge for either city, and a potential pitfall for the project, will be raising the billions of euros in capital that Adelson demands Spanish banks provide. In exchange, he claims, EuroVegas will create upwards of 250,000 jobs. These numbers are likely inflated, but more than 600,000 people are without work in greater Madrid, and the number in Catalonia is higher yet. So even as budget-slashing conservatives recite their new catechism of having “lived beyond our means,” they are falling over themselves to secure a project that epitomizes nothing if not excess and risk.
The irony of this gamble is not lost on underemployed Spaniards, who for all their desperation still wince at the star-spangled vulgarity of EuroVegas. Euro Disney was derided in its early days, but even that American eyesore was never called a “half-rotten tuber to nourish a city,” as one prominent newspaper op-ed has termed EuroVegas. For Spaniards weaned on movies like Casino, the project’s name conjures Mafioso strongmen, organized crime, and prostitution. As for Adelson himself, many see him as a pez gordo, or “big fish,” an influence-peddler who cuts backroom deals. “People like him are what the Spanish crisis was all about,” one EuroVegas protester told me in June, at a rally in downtown Madrid.
After leaving Valdecarros, I make my way to the town of Alcorcón, home to Madrid’s other contending site. The streets are empty in the afternoon heat, and lampposts display signs announcing an “Economic Activation Plan for Employment.” They picture a generic office scene, with a woman smiling from behind a desk. A cab driver named Raúl agrees to take me to the proposed construction site, a nondescript blur of sunburned fields off the highway. Raúl stands to gain from a bump in tourism, but he suspects he knows how this movie ends. “Will Spaniards work on construction crews?” he asks. “Once again, quick money and temporary jobs, without a long-term plan. Have we learned anything?”
He teaches me a Spanish proverb. Pan para hoy, hambre para mañana—“Bread for now, hunger tomorrow.” “For Spain,” he says, “EuroVegas is the same old rotten bet.”