The last megaresort? I don't think so


In olden days, a Las Vegas megaresort had one opening night. We circled the date on the calendar, and everybody lined up for the doors to open.

But CityCenter is just too big for one opening night. It basically has an opening couple of weeks.

We're in the midst of that frenzy. The Vdara hotel opened Tuesday, the Crystals entertainment district opened Thursday and the Mandarin Oriental hotel opens Saturday.

The news coverage, locally, nationally and internationally, is extensive, and crowds are gathering to get a look at the various elements of MGM Mirage's $8.5 billion, 67-acre colossus. Interest will peak on Dec. 16 when the 4,000-room Aria hotel-casino opens. (Two more smaller structures are set to open next year.)

The opening of a megaresort is always an exciting time in Las Vegas. Over the past two decades, we have seen more than a dozen major openings, starting with The Mirage in 1989.

My favorite remains the 1996 debut of the Stratosphere, when a friend and I looked out from the parking garage and witnessed a drug deal go down just a block away in the streets of Naked City.

There are no sketchy neighborhoods surrounding CityCenter, but that hasn't lessened the anxiety over the project -- will it be successful and will it lift the community out of its economic quagmire?

Skeptics abound, and rightly so. CityCenter will suffer because it's too upscale for this economy, they argue. It will simply siphon customers from other Strip resorts, resulting in no net increase of visitors, they fear. Locals will be deterred by traffic congestion, parking difficulties and prices, they say.

These are all legitimate concerns. The majority of Las Vegas visitors cannot afford the high-end places.

They may marvel at the elegance of Bellagio or The Venetian but most aren't buying designer clothes or eating in the fancy restaurants there.

It's also logical to assume that CityCenter will cannibalize posh places such as Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas and Four Seasons to some extent. If you can afford to do so, you'll naturally want to try out the next big thing in town.

As for locals, it's likely that many of them will steer clear of CityCenter, at least for a while, because they just don't want the hassle. But really, the MGM Mirage brain trust can't be too worried about this. CityCenter is for tourists, first and foremost.

The biggest question is whether CityCenter will expand the customer base for Las Vegas. In this economy, you have to wonder. But recent history suggests that it will.

The same question was raised when The Mirage opened, when the MGM Grand opened, when Bellagio opened. In fact, the question goes back to casino openings in the 1950s. And in almost every case, a quality new resort helped expand the Las Vegas economy.

To a large extent, all of these megaresorts were leaps of faith -- they weren't filling an existing need, they were creating a new one. They were leaps of faith founded on a core belief that the public's desire for Las Vegas -- the idea of it as well as its tangible offerings -- is nearly insatiable.

This does not change because of a recession. We've had recessions before and we'll have more in the future. They are temporary setbacks and have little or no effect on the enduring appeal of gambling, spectacle and entertainment.

Because of the naysayers, Las Vegas has always required visionary individuals to carry out these leaps of faith -- to brush off the conventional wisdom and create something truly new. Jay Sarno, Kirk Kerkorian, Steve Wynn, William Bennett and Bob Stupak are among the industry entrepreneurs who have taken risks that prove the allure of Las Vegas.

Now comes Jim Murren, the man chiefly responsible for CityCenter. Will he earn a place in the pantheon of Las Vegas visionaries?

He's certainly taking a good shot at it. The world-class architecture of CityCenter is unprecedented in Las Vegas. The $40 million worth of public art is inspiring. The pedestrian-oriented, urban-style environment is a far cry from the sidewalk mayhem along other parts of Las Vegas Boulevard. CityCenter appears to be the next step in the evolution of the Strip.

Of course, it's too early to say anything for sure. As casino industry veterans know, the numbers will tell the story. The prettiest resorts still need people to stay in the rooms, eat in the restaurants, watch the shows and, most important, play in the casino. Murren's project can't be measured by aesthetics alone. And growing the market gets a little tougher with each new or improved resort.

Whatever happens, I disagree with those who suggest CityCenter will be the last Las Vegas megaresort. We're in a slowdown, for sure. But before too long, someone -- some crazy kid with a dream -- will step forward with a bold new idea to reinvent the Strip once more.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.

 

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