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G2E panel: Green is cool ... and profitable.

By Meg Schneider -- Special to Today

LAS VEGAS - ''Sin City'' may seem an unlikely venue for talking about environmentally friendly building and business practices, but that was the topic of one of the panel discussions at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, held in mid-November.

The ''Going Green: And Staying in the Black'' panel brought together experts in gaming and ''green'' building and design to discuss whether, and where, casinos and caring for the environment can come together.

Increasingly, the panelists agreed, the two meet at the bottom line.

''It's a lot hipper to be green these days, but it's becoming a lot more economical to be green these days, too,'' said Eric Dominguez, corporate director of energy and environmental services for Harrah's Entertainment Inc. ''We've seen a big change on the supply side of the equation,'' especially when it comes to energy costs.

Oneida Indian Nation of New York Representative Ray Halbritter, who also serves as CEO of its enterprises (including Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today), said Indian nations have a unique opportunity to be leaders when it comes to making gaming green, noting that Indian gaming has grown into a $26 billion per year industry.

''We haven't always had the opportunity to be influential in how development has come up around us,'' Halbritter said. ''Now we are in a better position to have some influence in our own development and setting an example for others.

''Going green is nothing new for Native people,'' Halbritter said. ''Our traditions teach us to take care of Mother Earth, and now that message is becoming increasingly important as we see the global issues of environment and energy come home to everyone.''

John Krause, one of the first generation of architects trained in green building design, contrasted the images of Vegas and being environmentally friendly, using American Indian images to make his point.

''The environment thinks about the next seven generations,'' Krause said. ''Las Vegas thinks about the next seven minutes.''

The trick, he said, is for gaming operations to go green without forcing the fun element out of gaming.

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''What if you could care about the environment and not be ashamed to vacation in Las Vegas?'' he said. ''The gaming industry can either ignore the environmental movement and hope it goes away, or it can ride the wave, get on board and benefit from it.''

Debbie Levin, president of the Environmental Media Association, said the gaming industry shouldn't shy away from going green because sooner or later, their customers will demand it.

''It isn't the fringe thing to do anymore,'' Levin said. ''It's the mainstream thing to do. With gaming, you don't toss out everything you have. You can slowly convert to the things that make a difference.''

Although ''green gaming'' is still something of a novelty, Dominguez and some in the audience pointed out that gaming companies have been ''back of the house green'' since the 1980s. Several properties in Vegas use reclaimed ''gray water'' from their hotels in their fountains and other water features. Harrah's has retrofitted lighting at some of its properties to be more energy-efficient and has implemented heat recovery and exchange systems to reduce the energy needed for heating and cooling water. Recycling, though seldom visible in the public operations of casinos, is common behind the scenes; and more and more hotels are encouraging their guests to help them save energy by, for instance, using towels and bed linens more than once.

But there's much more on the horizon. EGM Green manufactures ''sustainable'' furniture for the gaming floor, including table game tables, stools and lounge furniture. Harrah's is seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for its new tower at Caesar's Palace, and the new City Center planned for Las Vegas seeks to become the first LEED-certified casino in the world. The St. Regis Mohawks and their development partner, Empire Resorts, also intend to seek LEED certification for their proposed casino in Monticello, N.Y.

Halbritter noted that ''the room wasn't packed'' for the Nov. 13 panel discussion, but predicted the topic will generate more interest as gaming operators discover how going green - or not - affects the bottom line.

''We don't believe all of a sudden people are going to think, 'Oh, I need to use a different kind of light bulb,''' he said. ''It's a generational change, a gradual change.''

He then cited two statistics from the U.S. Green Building Council: 89 percent of young consumers choose brands that are aligned with a social cause, such as protecting the environment, and 69 percent of young consumers shop for brands that are aligned with a social cause.

''Now what we're talking about is just good business. Now it gets exciting, because we're talking revenues and profits,'' Halbritter said. ''We need those younger consumers. They're our future.''

Meg Schneider is a senior writer in the Oneida Indian Nation's Communications Department.