There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about how Richard Branson decided on the location for his Virgin Megastore in Dublin during the 1980s.
He spent a day standing by a bridge over the River Liffey that runs off O’Connell St, the city’s main avenue, watching foot traffic past a particular building.
The corner was, and still is, one of the busiest in town. Much has changed in Dublin since, but the passersby would still be broadly the same: a retailer’s dream mix comprised of a high volume of tourists, commuters walking to nearby transport hubs on their way in and out of the city, and people just killing time.
As the story goes, the day spent watching the foot traffic convinced Branson that this was the place to invest in a highly visible shop front. The Virgin Megastore-branded building became part of the architectural blend in the hub of the city for 15 years until it shut in the early 2000s, victim to the structural shifts in the music and entertainment industry wrought by the arrival of the digital age.
But for the time it was trading, its visibility and accessibility made it part of city life.
So it will be with James Packer’s proposed casino on the foreshore of Sydney Harbour. As it moves into its next stage – winning the right to actually go ahead and build it – his campaign to reshape the city of Sydney will become more complex.
Packer’s fight to end Echo Entertainment’s casino monopoly in the city will make a case study in creating a vast business opportunity with old-school vision and audacity.
The Unsolicited Proposal process allowed Packer to dream up the idea, take it to the government and ask: Can I do this?
But with the Crown proposal now moving to negotiations on actual development, it shifts from being what it has been – a power struggle with billions of dollars at stake involving giant personalities in a colourful industry – to a story at least partly about the image that Sydney projects to the world.
The business side of the story rolls on, with reports the ACCC investigating claims that Packer promised Echo executives he would stay out of the Brisbane casino market if they “behaved” in regards to Sydney.
But there are other considerations that will be burst wide open by public submissions on the development application.
The casino, Packer knows, will be a landmark, part of the city’s future identity. The 60-storey, 250m tower will feature on postcards and be seen in footage from Sydney’s New Year celebrations, beamed across the world on January 1 each year.
The dramatic design of the tower ensures it will be an ongoing object of curiosity for visitors. Yes it’s eye-catching, but the twisted, soaring design also looks like something that fell from space and landed awkwardly on the water’s edge.
Airline passengers arriving on the northern approach to the airport, commonly used by international traffic, will see it through the windows, the casino sharing pride of place alongside the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, Sydney’s engineering and cultural marvels.
And when visitors ask about the function of this eye-catching tower they see on postcards and from vantage points all over the city, they’ll be told it’s a giant gambling hub.
Watch an animation of the proposed development (story continues below):
In terms of physical presence this is dramatically different to other Australian casinos; Echo’s The Star is a low-lying complex in Pyrmont and Crown in Melbourne fits neatly into the architecture of the Yarra banks. In Perth, the Burswood complex is a rough pyramid shape, but nowhere near as central, dramatic and imposing as the Sydney plan.
Packer’s proposal is worth a huge amount to the local economy: a billion dollars, minimum, over 15 years in direct revenue from licence fee and gaming tax payments. And that’s before any the associated tourism activity is taken into account – there’s an estimated $442 million added to gross state product from 2025, and around 1250 jobs ongoing after construction’s finished.
The decision by the David Murray-led review panel reached its conclusion on the benefits that competition in the gambling sector would bring to gaming in the city. This is the right approach. As an international city, Sydney needs a casino as part of its tourism offering but a monopoly means the incumbent can plod along without ever having to really offer something special. Echo practically admitted to underinvesting in Sydney with its $1.1 billion upgrade plan that was spurred by Packer’s dramatic gambit.
But there are equally sound, well-canvassed social reasons for the tight regulation of gambling. The Crown proposal was initially branded as an invitation-only, VIP resort but this has looked increasingly thin as details of the proposal have emerged.
As Echo chief executive and respected Las Vegas veteran John Redmond told Business Insider recently, just looking at it lets you know it’s not just a VIP resort – there’s simply too much floor space in it to make it profitable on a VIP-only model.
“When you have the size that’s being pushed over there, that’s a casino, that’s a significant casino,” Redmond said. “That’s not something small, that’s not a VIP boutique hotel, that’s a very, very significant casino.”
Critically, the Crown plan omits pokies, the black holes that swallow an estimated $12 billion a year from the community and the backbone of problem gambling in Australia. But there are automated tables allowing $20 blackjack bets – hardly high roller territory – and a fairly straightforward mechanism of a 24-hour cooling off period that will get a Sydneysider with no record of gambling in the door – along with an unspecified number of guests.
For both tourists and residents, Sydney’s essence is carefree and brash with just the right amount of ratbaggery. This partly explains why a plan for a second huge casino has been met by and large with something of a shrug.
But it’s also partly because the process so far hasn’t called for widespread public submissions. Packer’s goal is to drive the process through to turning the sod on a project that will transform Sydney’s skyline, harbour shore and brand like nothing since the Opera House. The city’s residents and businesses will get to have its say – and they won’t be shy in coming forward.
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