57°F
weather icon Clear

Former Las Vegas developer’s big project ideas still going nowhere

BEE CAVE, Texas — Chris Milam once said he is different from most developers.

He wants a fair profit, not an excessive one, and is driven “more by a desire for the greater good,” he wrote in an email to a Bee Cave councilman nearly three years ago.

Milam’s group later sued Bee Cave leaders, and his real estate proposals ended the same way as his big projects some 1,300 miles away in Southern Nevada: He never built them.

Developers are building projects throughout the Las Vegas Valley, including several that cost a billion dollars or more. But as construction booms, the region’s history of real estate flops should not be forgotten.

Southern Nevada, despite boasting plenty of massive projects that are up and running, also has a lengthy track record of developers pitching big ideas and never following through. And in the not-too-distant past, Milam was prolific at it.

He spent years pursuing billions of dollars worth of projects in the Las Vegas area before and after the economy tanked with nothing to show for them. His last plan in the valley — a four-venue professional sports complex south of the M Resort — ended in 2013 with the city of Henderson suing him, and Milam agreeing as part of a settlement to never again do business in the city.

In written responses to questions for this story, the 58-year-old developer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he loves Las Vegas, he “took quite a lot of abuse” over his multivenue sports proposal because people thought he wasn’t realistic, and he hasn’t been to Southern Nevada for years.

He also said his years in the valley were “difficult for all of us. But we tried.”

After his time in Las Vegas, Milam headed back to the Austin, Texas, area and followed a familiar arc: He partnered with a wealthy business figure and made big projections but never built his projects.

“He’s a very good salesman,” Bee Cave Mayor Bill Goodwin told the Review-Journal last year.

Unlike other developers, Milam was a “serial” promoter, said RCG Economics founder John Restrepo, who did a fiscal benefits analysis for Milam’s Henderson project.

Typically, he said, developers might pitch project plans a few times but move on if they flame out.

Big plans

Milam surfaced in Las Vegas after Hard Rock Hotel developer Peter Morton announced plans in 2004 for a $1 billion hotel-condo project next to the off-Strip resort. Milam was involved with the project by spring 2005, appearing with Morton at a media event, but their business relationship eventually fell apart, according to court records.

Peter Morton discusses the expansion of the Hard Rock Hotel during a press conference on Saturd ...
Peter Morton discusses the expansion of the Hard Rock Hotel during a press conference on Saturday, April 30 2005. (Las Vegas Review-Journal file)

Morton shelved the expansion and sold the Hard Rock and other assets for $770 million in cash in 2006. He could not be reached for comment.

Amid the bloated real estate bubble, Milam reached a deal in 2006 to buy the 27-acre former Wet ’n’ Wild water park site on the north Strip for $450 million and filed plans for a monster skyscraper: a 142-story casino-resort.

Australian billionaire James Packer later teamed with Milam and a New York investment firm to develop Crown Las Vegas at the Wet ’n’ Wild site. But by mid-2008, with the economy stumbling, they bailed on the $5 billion high-rise project.

Packer’s company Crown Resorts did not respond to an inquiry from the Review-Journal seeking comment from Packer.

In 2010, after the market had crashed, Milam filed plans for the 20,000-seat Silver State Arena at the same property. The $750 million project would “light this area on fire” with economic activity, he said at the time.

Jon Snyder, left, developer Chris Milam and Terry Care testify in a joint legislative committee ...
Jon Snyder, left, developer Chris Milam and Terry Care testify in a joint legislative committee of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on June 3, 2011. (Lisa J. Tolda/AP)

That, too, wasn’t built.

With the economy still spiraling in early 2011, Milam proposed building Las Vegas National Sports Center, a downtown complex with an arena and two stadiums that would reportedly cost nearly $1.6 billion. By spring 2011 he wanted the project – then slated to cost almost $2 billion – at the current Allegiant Stadium site west of the Strip.

But he soon changed the location again, drawing up plans for an arena and three stadiums in the Henderson desert.

‘Best interests of the city’

Milam told the Henderson City Council he had the rights to the next Major League Soccer expansion franchise; was in discussions with several NBA team owners; held talks with billionaire tech mogul Larry Ellison; and could guarantee 200 events per year even if he couldn’t land a pro basketball team, according to the city of Henderson’s lawsuit against him.

He also told council members his sales staff was generating new business every day, his financing was “fully approved,” and there was a key difference between him and his competitors.

“The rest of them don’t have the best interests of the city of Henderson in mind,” Milam said. “We do.”

Milam bought the project site, some 480 acres of federal land, in mid-2012 with a $10.5 million bid to the Bureau of Land Management. But months later, the same day the balance of the purchase was wired into escrow, he hand-delivered a letter to the city terminating the project plans, saying they were no longer viable, according to court records.

The city sued Milam and others involved in the project in early 2013, claiming they made “numerous false and misleading” statements to city officials, and “conspired” to acquire public land at a discount and sell it in pieces to developers “at a substantial profit.”

Milam settled the lawsuit within a few months. According to a federal report, he agreed to pay the city $4.5 million, to have his investors replace him in the land sale process, and to never do business in Henderson again.

After the case settled, M Resort developer Anthony Marnell III told the Review-Journal that Milam “bit off more than he could chew” and “has a track record of more proposed and not-built projects than anybody who has ever come to Las Vegas.”

Former Henderson City Attorney Josh Reid, who took his post after Milam reached a development agreement with the city, said a few months ago that the situation with the developer was a product of the recession.

With the economy limping along, officials were “a little too overeager” to land a big project, causing them to not scrutinize the proposal close enough, he said.

“Hopefully people remember the lessons there,” Reid said.

‘World class’

Several months later, in fall 2013, Milam was in Bee Cave pitching plans for a film studio, saying it was “intended for major Hollywood productions,” according to a news report.

He was no stranger to the area. His company, International Development Management, was based in Austin, and Bee Cave officials said he had developed two big retail projects in their city, some 15 miles west of the Texas Capitol: Hill Country Galleria and Shops at the Galleria.

“He had some credibility here,” Bee Cave City Manager Clint Garza told the Review-Journal last year.

Milam set out to build a 35-acre project with sound stages, office buildings, a hotel and more at The Backyard, a shuttered music venue in Bee Cave. He later scrapped the film-production space and added data centers and a power plant to the project, city records show.

He also drew up plans for The Terrace, a 19.5-acre project nearby that was supposed to feature condos and offices.

Developer Chris Milam pursued plans for The Terrace, shown here in a rendering, a 19.5-acre pro ...
Developer Chris Milam pursued plans for The Terrace, shown here in a rendering, a 19.5-acre project in Bee Cave, Texas, but never built it. (City of Bee Cave)

The Backyard was projected to cost more than $358 million, and The Terrace was estimated at nearly $203 million, records show.

Milam, who said the proposals were part of the same project, teamed with Texas billionaire John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of Patrón tequila and John Paul Mitchell Systems hair products, and held a ceremonial groundbreaking in 2017.

Developer Chris Milam pursued plans for The Backyard in Bee Cave, Texas, but never built the 35 ...
Developer Chris Milam pursued plans for The Backyard in Bee Cave, Texas, but never built the 35-acre project, a rendering of which is seen here. (City of Bee Cave)

Ultimately, the most construction at The Backyard while Milam was still involved with the project was the unauthorized removal of trees, Lindsey Oskoui, Bee Cave’s director of planning and development, told the Review-Journal last year.

Milam indicated that only “underbrush for fire control and surveying” was removed. The subcontractor cleared more than the permit allowed and was replaced, he added.

DeJoria, whom Milam called “the owner” in the venture, could not be reached for comment for this story.

$50 million lawsuit

Milam talked up his efforts to Bee Cave officials, as seen in emails obtained by the Review-Journal in a public records request.

In mid-2016, he sent financial records to then-City Manager Travis Askey and cited the “huge ongoing monthly expenditures on world class architecture and engineering.” In early 2017, he told officials that The Backyard would be “the foundation of a significant evolution” in Austin’s fine arts community.

However, legal troubles soon surfaced. In summer 2017, an energy company that expected to provide utility services for the project sued Milam, claiming, in part, it was cut out of the deal before it received “any reasonable compensation.”

They settled the case, court records show.

In early 2018, Milam’s Backyard Partners entity sued then-mayor pro tem Goodwin and two Bee Cave council members, seeking more than $50 million if the city did “not allow” the project to move ahead as planned.

The lawsuit, which claimed the city leaders “actively campaigned to prevent” the redevelopment of The Backyard site, was reportedly dropped last year.

“I’m just gonna be blunt: If there hadn’t been a $50 million lawsuit, and there hadn’t been this guy, it wouldn’t have been as high-profile,” said Garza, who took the city manager’s post after the suit was filed.

Last year, a representative for The Backyard confirmed that Milam was no longer involved in the project.

Milam said he doesn’t know whether he will build another project, though he will not try something in Southern Nevada again, adding he “of course” doesn’t “feel good” about how the arena-and-stadiums project ended.

“It was jarring that I could spend so much time, energy and capital attempting to do something beautiful and positive for the community at a very difficult time,” he said, and “ultimately be painted in such a negative light.”

Contact Eli Segall at esegall@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0342. Follow @eli_segall on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Business Videos
MGM Resorts last Las Vegas operator standing in Osaka bid - VIDEO
Japan is getting ready to issue three highly coveted gaming licenses. The country’s gaming market is estimated to be worth more than $25 billion a year once resorts open in 2025. If the estimates stand up, Japan would become the second-largest gaming market in the world behind Chinese gaming enclave Macau. MGM and at least eight other companies had been vying for the Japanese licenses. In 2019 Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts Ltd. turned their attention to other areas. Caesars Entertainment Corp. dropped out of the race altogether. MGM teamed up with Japanese financial services group Orix for its bid for a gaming license. MGM/Orix group was the only one to participate in the RFP process. "We think MGM is in a very good position in Osaka at this point" - Union Gaming analyst John DeCree
Plans for luxury hotel on south Las Vegas Strip - VIDEO
Review-Journal real estate reporter Eli Segall speaks with Renee Summerour about a California developer's plan to help revamp the south Las Vegas Strip. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Two years until “I Do” - VIDEOY
Las Vegas locals Sam Cruz and Jeff Gaglione discuss their engagement, in their future wedding venue at Emerald at Queensridge in Las Vegas, on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (Elizabeth Page Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @elipagephoto
Chairman, CEO of MGM Resorts Jim Murren stepping down - VIDEO
MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren will be stepping down as chairman and CEO. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wynn Las Vegas opens new convention center space - VIDEO
On Feb. 10, 2020, Wynn Las Vegas opened its new convention center expansion that more than doubled its sellable space. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Local tattoo shop tattoos MAGIC attendees - VIDEO
Club Tattoo is giving away tattoos to the people who attend the biannual fashion convention throughout its three days at Mandalay Bay Convention Center. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New report shows January home sales jump - VIDEO
Las Vegas’ housing market had another big jump in sales from year-ago levels as prices stayed relatively flat, a new report shows. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Creed perfume store part of growing Las Vegas Strip luxury retail - VIDEO
Andrea DeCarlo, general manager at Creed at the Forum Shops at Caesars on the Las Vegas Strip, talks about her luxury perfume store Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Newest tech gadgets at store in Forum Shops at Caesars - VIDEO
A new store at Forum Shops at Caesars, b8ta, encourages shoppers to play with the hottest tech gadgets. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Preview Las Vegas 2020 - VIDEO
Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, hints at new branding slogan for Las Vegas, which will no longer be “What happens here, stays here.” The new slogan will be unveiled Jan. 26 during the Grammy Awards. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Boring Company could provide a solution to parking problems - VIDEO
LVCVA President and CEO Steve Hill believes a potential solution for parking problems is the Boring Company’s $52.5 million people-mover -- a system that could eventually be expanded citywide connecting resorts and even McCarran International Airport to the Convention Center.
The Blackstone Group has partnered with MGM Resorts to acquire more properties - VIDEO
A few months after the Blackstone Group bought the Bellagio for more than $4 billion, it has partnered with MGM Resorts on a deal to acquire two other Las Vegas Strip properties. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES Young Innovator Award winner explains ReDawn - VIDEO
Sofia Ongele explains ReDawn, which uses a Chatbot named Dawn to help users find resources after a sexual assault. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2020: MedWand ties for title of Last Gadget Standing - VIDEO
Dr. Samir Qamar of Las Vegas presents MedWand, a medical device that allows physicians to examine patients remotely anywhere in the world, at CES 2020. (Elizabeth Page Brumley /Las Vegas Review-Journal) @elipagephoto
CES Flying Taxis
Bell Nexus EX4 and Hyundai SA-1 flying taxi prototypes from CES 2020. (Mick Akers/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2020 attendees rides in autonomous BMWs - VIDEO
BMW is pitching its reconfigured i3 Urban Suite, which holds a single passenger on a lounge-style seat, as the possible future of chauffeured rides at CES 2020. (Mick Akers/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2020: Small appliances unveiled in Las Vegas - VIDEO
The small appliances on show at Sands Expo at CES 2020 in Las Vegas include a Keurig cocktail maker, autonomous cooking system, nitrogen coffee ampules and more. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2020: The scooter that will remind you of Wall-E - VIDEO
Segway unveiled the egg-shaped S-Pod Scooter at CES 2020 that’s a seated version of their original scooter that can reach 24mph. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2020: Before the floor opens at Sands Expo on Day One - VIDEO
CES 2020 opened its doors at 10 a.m. Tuesday, welcoming more than 170,000 attendees to the annual electronics show. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2020: A suitcase that follows you, video games to heal you at Pepcom's Digital Experience - VIDEO
Get a glance at Pepcom’s Digital Experience! a showcase of products that will be at this week’s CES convention. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2020: Impossible Foods Inc. Debuts Impossible Pork - VIDEO
At a pre-CES news conference at Mandalay Bay’s Kumi restaurant Monday night, a company representative announced that the participants were the “first people in the world” to try the new plant-based product, which it provided as samples in the form of Impossible Pork banh mi, char siu buns, dan dan noodles, pork katsu, pork shumai and sweet-sour-and-numbing meatballs.
CES 2020: Impossible Foods debuts Impossible Pork in Las Vegas - VIDEO
Before a packed press conference at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Impossible Foods executives introduced Impossible Pork, its newest product. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2020: The Future of Transportation - VIDEO
Many automotive companies at CES unveil their plans for the future of transportation including safer driverless cars, safety features and a partnership between Uber and Hyundai. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2020: What you've missed so far - VIDEO
Catch up on the tech and events presented at CES 2020. (James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2020: Samsung debuts 8k TV, MicroLED TV - VIDEO
2020 is set to be a major year for 8k screens, according to Samsung executives. (James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas resorts welcome dogs to stay
Las Vegas properties are welcoming dogs more than ever. MGM Resorts International announced a new dog-friendly program across all of its Las Vegas properties in December. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Musk 'hopeful' for 2020 completion of underground Las Vegas project - VIDEO
Elon Musk tweeted Friday night that The Boring Company’s underground tunnel project in Las Vegas will be “hopefully fully operational” within the next year. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
World Market Center celebrates topping-off ceremony - VIDEO
Las Vegas elected officials including Councilman Cedric Crear attend topping-off ceremony for the Expo at World Market Center in Las Vegas.
MSG Sphere in Las Vegas will be the largest spherical building in the world - VIDEO
The Madison Square Garden Sphere at The Venetian has now been under construction for about one year and is expected to be completed in 2021. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Aria still thriving after 10 years - VIDEO
The Aria opened on the heels of the Great Recession and managed to survive. It is now known for its art, environmental sustainability and poker. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST
Stocks tumbling again Tuesday

Stocks sink, bonds soar on fears virus will stunt economy

Dow drops more than 1,000 as outbreak threatens the economy

Investors sought safety in U.S. government bonds, gold and high-dividend stocks like utilities and real estate in the worst day for the stock market in two years.