BETHLEHEM - Pennsylvania's newest - and largest - casino got it official opening today with a lavish display of Vegas show-finery balanced by steelworkers wielding a blow torch who helped pay homage to the site's former occupant: a steel mill.

The Sands Casino Resort, which already had opened to gamblers May 22, got its official ribbon-cutting - or, in this case, a shrill clanging of a 650-pound whistle from the SS Normandy, a French cruise liner whose salvaged whistle was used to mark shift changes at the steel plant - at just about 1 o'clock.

Gov. Rendell and company and local luminaries were on hand to dedicate the slots parlor, which had 60,000 visitors its first three days and saw $18 million in wagering the first day alone.

The Sands already has drawn patrons from the Mount Airy Resort Casino, which is about 40 miles away.

Rendell noted that the addition to the state's gambling scene would generate $180 a year in property tax relief for Bethlehem residents.

"I want to thank them for the confidence they had in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley and having faith in what this area could become," Rendell said of the forces behind the casino, including Sheldon Adelson, chairman and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Sands, which owns the Bethlehem gambling hall as well as gaming halls in Macau, Singapore and Las Vegas.

Today's ceremony also featured three longtime workers - now in their 70s - who used to work at the steel plant that stood on the site. The new casino is on on the east end of 22 original steel-making structures that made up Bethlehem Steel, which closed its local operations in 1998.

"This is a new beginning for the city of Bethlehem and the residents of the Lehigh Valley," an exuberant Adelson said. "You have our commitment that every step of the way, we will be full community partners."

Adelson said his company intends to complete the plans for the property, putting in a retail mall, a hotel and convention space.

He alluded to the business being enhanced by table games, which are being discussed by Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board but, ultimately, must be confirmed by the state legislature.

Since debuting as Pennsylvania's largest among eight operating slots parlors, the $743 million Sands Casino Resort has received mostly positive reviews, and has benefited from its proximity to Philadelphia, New York and North Jersey.

"We think Bethlehem is a solid regional effort for Las Vegas Sands," wrote Joel Simkins, gambling analyst with Macquarie Capital (USA) Inc. in a note to investors on May 28. "Given an A+ location that can draw from northern New Jersey and the Philadelphia suburbs, Sands should generate strong revenue."

The casino helped to increase statewide gross slots revenue by nearly 18 percent last month - to $178.4 million - compared with May 2008, according to the state gaming board.

From May 22 to May 31, Sands Bethlehem grossed nearly $10.7 million in slots revenue.

Pennsylvania has a 55 percent tax on gross slots revenue, compared with New Jersey's 9.25 percent tax on gross gambling revenue.

That money is used in Pennsylvania for reducing local property taxes, boosting horse race purse money, and funding economic development projects in the commonwealth. In addition, a portion of that money is returned to local and county governments that host the casinos.

Bethlehem stands to get $8.6 million a year, Northampton County $2.4 million, Allentown $3.2 million, and Lehigh County $822,400, according to the state Revenue Department.

Rendell said he could think of no other industry in Pennsylvania that has created jobs: Since August, the state has lost 600,000 jobs. "This new entity is creating 1,000 jobs in the toughest economy since the Great Depression," the governor said.

But Bethlehem's and the Lehigh Valley's gain has come at a cost to Atlantic City's struggling casinos.

The Sands Bethlehem is heavily targeting the North Jersey and New York markets - which make up 45 percent of Atlantic City's clientele. The more affluent gamblers coming from that corridor are easily transported to the Sands' seven-story parking garage by Interstate 78.

The casino is also proving to be a formidable competitor to other Pennsylvania slots parlors. Its debut has resulted in a 10 percent decrease in slots revenue at Mount Airy Resort Casino in the Poconos, which is about 40 miles from the new casino, according to Mount Airy chief executive officer George Toth.

Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.