Empire East kickstarts talks with Okada on Manila casino lot

MANILA, July 10 (Reuters) - Empire East Land Holdings Inc has begun talks with Kazuo Okada on the possible purchase of a Manila lot where the Japanese tycoon is building a $2 billion casino resort complex, said the president of the Philippine real estate developer.

“Talks are very preliminary,” President Anthony Charlemagne Yu told a press briefing in Manila on Wednesday.

He declined to say whether the discussions involve the entire lot where Okada is building his casino resort complex or just part of it.

A Tokyo-based spokesman for Okada’s Universal Entertainment Corp that is planning the development could not be immediately reached for comment.

A land deal with Empire East, a unit of conglomerate Alliance Global Inc through its property arm Megaworld Corp, could put back on track the Japanese billionaire’s first casino venture in Manila.

Three rival casino resorts have already been allowed to operate in the 100-hectare Entertainment City near Manila Bay, including the Solaire Resort & Casino.

Universal and another Philippine developer, Robinsons Land Corp, earlier failed to reach a deal over a planned joint development of Okada’s Manila Bay Resorts.

A deal had been seen as a way for Universal to resolve a legal dispute over the ownership structure of Eagle I, the registered owner of a 40-hectare plot of land on Manila Bay.

Last year, an arm of the Philippine justice department published a legal opinion indicating the structure breached the constitution because Aruze USA, a U.S. firm controlled by Okada, effectively held 64 percent of Eagle I via direct and indirect stakes. That would be above a foreign ownership threshold of 40 percent.

The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation, the industry regulator, has said Universal needs to address the land issue before the casino can open.

Universal has said it conducts its business in the Philippines lawfully.

A Universal spokesman said in May that the company could seek a new partner or go it alone in order to ensure that the Manila Bay Resorts casino opened next year.

Yu said Empire East wanted to know if Universal was willing to pursue the residential project even if the casino did not go ahead.

“We are still interested in the residential (segment),” he said.

There have been “expressions of interest for a joint undertaking in the residential development,” Yu said.

Empire East separately agreed last year to take the lead in building high-end residential towers at Universal’s planned resort.

Shares of Empire East fell 3.1 percent on Wednesday. The broader market slipped 0.3 percent.