Las Vegas could soon be coming to Blackpool and one college is putting its money on training tourism students in casino skills. Steve Hook reports
ALONG the seafront, ageing trams creak and rattle their way past, carrying visitors through the drizzle. A group of Liverpudlian men dressed as St Trinian's girls amble along in search of a place to drink. And, slumped in front of a souvenir shop, a beggar stares into the middle-distance, half-heartedly repeating his mantra for small change.
Welcome to Blackpool's Golden Mile.
Lancashire's riviera has undoubtedly seen better days, with annual visitor numbers down from 16 million in 1975 to 11m in 1999, but it can be proud of keeping its place as the UK's most popular seaside destination.
Unlike other English coastal resorts, Blackpool is determined to re-invent itself as the novelty of its famous illuminations begins to fade, and its further education college is determined to be part of the solution.
Blackpool and Fylde College has a long tradition of training people for the tourist industry. Its catering department, inherited from the technical college which preceded it, was one of the first to be established.
One of its restaurants has been fitted with the original wood panelling which once adorned the catering department's first home - a suburban house.
But the work these students go on to is often seasonal and in a declining industry.
However, all that could be about to change in a dramatic way. If the Government goes ahead with its de-regulation of gambling, the town's future could rest on the spin of a roulette wheel. One particular obstacle which needs to be removed by the Government's gambling review is the 24-hour cooling-off period which is required between joining a casino and being allowed to use it.
Six 1,000-bedroom hotels are planned, each with their own casino and venue for live performances. The first, the Pharaoh's Palace, is planned on the site of a car park.
Just as Las Vegas played host to Elvis Presley when he was past his hip-swivelling best, followed latterly by Tom Jones, so Blackpool's middle-aged visitors could, in years to come, be throwing their knickers at a sweating, overweight Robbie Williams crooning away in the auditorium of their own hotel.
"The trouble with Blackpool," says Reg Chapman, the principal, "is Las Vegas gets Tom Jones and all we get is the Grumbleweeds."
He has never set foot in a casino and, in fact, isn't from Blackpool either, describing himself as a "Yorkshireman on missionary work".
"We are determined the whole community must benefit. Blackpool is the 12th-poorest area in the UK by GDP and has the highest unemployment rate in Lancashire. When you have a lot of cash being handled, there is always the risk that you will get organised crime, another reason why training needs to be taken seriously.
"We have thought about the moral implications of gambling. Other forms of gambling, like the lottery, are already accessible to anyone who wants to take part and the question is whether they shouldn't be allowed to use a casino on the same basis.
"There is no reason why some of the proceeds can't be used for deserving causes. We expect to get a huge benefit from it. It is just a question of how you can cream off some of the money in the same way as the lottery."
The casino plan is being promoted by the Blackpool Challenge Partnership, which was established in 1996 to co-ordinate Single Regeneration Budget schemes which have included overhauling the tower, crime prevention and improvements to hotel accommodation. The college plans to place itself at the heart of things by opening a training centre just a few blocks inland from the seafront.
While the college is reluctant to predict how training will be provided at the centre at such an early stage, there is already a commitment from both sides that it will be heavily supported by business, with on-the-job training being provided alongside tutorials by college lecturers.
"We visualise it as being a university for tourism," says Allan Cavill, who runs the partnership, "although I appreciate you can't use the word university. The college is a well-respected institution in the town, and well-placed to provide what we're looking for.
"There is a massive skills deficiency here. If you look at the professionalism you find in America, then you realise there has to be a change in attitude about training. In the last 20 years we have had people coming to Blackpool and opening guest houses without training. We've got to change that culture."
This would be supported by a tourism centre of excellence which is already planned on the college's main Bispham campus, on the edge of town.
While Vegas may be the inspiration for the project, the plans are based on what happened in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on the east coast of the US. Atlantic City's visitor numbers had declined from 10m to one million until it re-invented itself as a gambling city. It has never looked back.
If the project goes ahead, one of the college's first moves will be to twin with a community college in Atlantic City, as it cashes in on the North-west's most popular stag and hen night destination's transformation into a gambling goldmine.