Stratosphere, vision of late Bob Stupak, to mark 20th anniversary in Las Vegas

In a city where buildings aren’t known for their longevity, Las Vegas will soon celebrate a milestone for its tallest landmark.

The Stratosphere Las Vegas, a vision of the late casino owner, poker player and promoter Bob Stupak, turns 20 on Saturday. The casino will formally celebrate the birthday May 1 with specials and giveaways for Nevada residents with free access to the tower, $20 unlimited thrill rides and two for $20 at the buffet.

At 1,149 feet, the Stratosphere tower is a familiar part of the Las Vegas landscape.

“It been a great attraction for people coming to Las Vegas,” said Ned Martin, chief operating officer with American Casino & Entertainment Properties, the owner of the casino. “The Stratosphere Tower is in just about every picture you see of the Las Vegas Strip. … People know it and recognize it and they come here in droves.”

Without the tower, the Stratosphere probably would be viewed as just another value hotel at the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard. Locals don’t make up a large share of its customer base. But the tower has become a draw for tourists, and it celebrated its 40 millionth visitor in 2014.

It has the Top of the World Restaurant that spins around every 80 minutes offering diners a panoramic view. An indoor and outdoor observation deck and a lounge provide equally stunning views, and it’s all topped off by adventure rides and experiences for those who aren’t faint of heart and don’t fear heights.

“I think it’s indistinguishable from the personality of Bob Stupak if you look at the workings of it,” said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV. “He had the Vegas World casino there and in order to make it competitive with the megaresorts that were being built, he wanted to have a huge observation tower. It’s part of that wave of casinos in the ’90s and showed you could build a resort like that even off the main part of the Strip.”

Downsized but still a landmark

Stupak’s plan evolved over time, but he once envisioned a much taller tower exceeding 1,800 feet. Concerns about the height of the tower affecting flights at McCarran International Airport brought down the height of the tower but it would still be the tallest building west of the Mississippi River and nearly twice the size of the Space Needle in Seattle. It’s marketed as the largest freestanding observation tower in the country.

“Clearly it was designed to be an attraction,” Martin said. “(Bob) had looked around and seen other towers in Seattle and other parts of the world (like Toronto) and believed a tower would be a great attraction to bring people down to this end of Las Vegas Boulevard.”

Not everything, however, went smoothly. During its construction, the tower caught on fire in August 1993. Although no one was hurt, it required some reconstruction that led to delays in the project. Stupak brought in Grand Casinos as an equity partner in 1995 to help complete the project.

The Stratosphere opened with great fanfare. Martin, who was there opening night in 1996 but did not work for the Stratosphere until 2008, said it was a new definition of the Las Vegas skyline and was well-received and drew great public attention.

“People were excited, and there were new projects coming online,” Martin said of the time. “There was a change starting in the early ’90s with the construction of The Mirage. New and exciting properties meant a lot to the people of Las Vegas. An interesting tower built by an interesting man of course developed a lot of attention.”

After the Stratosphere opened, it fell on hard times and filed for bankruptcy. It was gobbled up by investor Carl Icahn through his American Casino company. Construction on a second hotel tower, halted during the bankruptcy, was completed in 2001.

Icahn sold American Casino to Whitehall Street Real Estate Funds in February 2008 and the ownership stake not only includes the Stratosphere but two Arizona Charlie’s in Southern Nevada and Aquarius Casino Resort in Laughlin.

Today it has 2,427 rooms, 75,000 square feet of retail space on the third floor, six restaurants, including the buffet, and several fast food restaurants. In its 80,000 square feet of casino floor, it has 750 slot machines and 45 table games, Martin said. It employs 1,600 people, about 200 of which started with the Stratosphere 20 years ago.

The Stratosphere targets the “middle-market value-conscious” Las Vegas visitor, Martin said. He called the primary objective to attract a “customer with a high propensity to gamble” and once they’re on the property, provide them with outstanding customer service and amenities.

As a sign of the customer base it lures, the typical room rates in April was $50 a night during the weeknights and $100 a night on the weekends, according to hotel. There’s a $24.99 resort fee.

Locals not a mainstay

Locals go to the Stratosphere but they’re not a large proportion of the business, Martin said. Most come from Southern California, and there are visitors from other parts of the world. Canada and Germany are the top two international destinations and Great Britain is right behind.

The Stratosphere’s mailers focus on customers outside Nevada, but many locals access the property by redeeming points on player cards at the three other American Casino properties.

Martin said the American Casino doesn’t disclose the revenues of its individual properties but said the Stratosphere is doing “extremely well” and is successful. In its report for 2015, American Casino reported net revenues of $373.1 million compared to $351.1 in 2014. Net income was $12.1 million compared to a net loss of $7 million a year ago.

“Its heyday was back in 2006 and 2007 just like everybody else,” Martin said. “We have not gotten back to that number but it’s doing very well and growing, and we’re getting favorable results.”

The big difference of today and way the property performed before the Great Recession is with gaming, Martin said. The hotel, food and beverage and tower, meanwhile, have continued to show more growth over the last several years than gaming, he said.

“I think people don’t gamble as much as they used to,” Martin said. “They’re still a little bit recession-shy, and we see that all over Las Vegas Boulevard where the non-gaming amenities at various properties are outgaining gaming.”

American Casino has spent $50 million renovating the hotel over the last several years, Martin said. It redid 990 rooms in 2011 and more room renovations will be done this year. In the fourth quarter report, it cited $20.9 million in capital expenditures in 2015 for its properties.

American Casino has brought in new restaurants, renovated the casino and its two pools at the Stratosphere.

Even the top of the tower has evolved. It once featured a roller coaster called the High Roller that was dismantled in 2005. The featured rides today include Big Shot, which launches riders 160 feet in 2.5 seconds along the 238-foot mast extending like a needle from the top of the tower.

Insanity-The Ride holds passengers in seats as it spins 40 miles per hour with an arm that pivots out 68 feet over the edge of the tower. X Scream is an open vehicle that holds eight passengers and is attached to a pivoting track that propels the vehicle over the edge, some 30 feet of the tower at 30 miles per hour. Skyjump opened in 2010 on the 108th floor. It’s a controlled descent to the base of the tower similar to a vertical zip line.

It’s all part of a strategy of distinguishing the Stratosphere.

“You have to cognizant of competition,” Martin said. “The Stratosphere has been a survivor year in and year out. The Sahara closed and people thought the Stratosphere would be negatively affected. SLS reopened and people thought the Stratosphere would be negatively affected.

“Certainly more competition and new hotel rooms are going to affect the market in total so we have to be cognizant of that. If you look at what’s going on with the Wynn and what Resorts World wants to do on the old Stardust site, and the convention center where the Riviera is being torn down, there’s a lot of momentum towards the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard,” he added.

Paying homage to the past

As the Stratosphere anniversary approaches, the casino hasn’t forgotten its past. It recently held a ceremony on renaming Baltimore Avenue that runs along the south of the resort to Bob Stupak Avenue. Stupak’s son, Nevada Stupak, attended and toured the renovated resort.

Martin said he has no idea what Stupak, who died at 67 in 2009, would suggest be done with the Stratosphere today but believes he would think it’s a fantastic place. He said Stupak’s son was impressed with how the property has evolved.

What will that evolution look like in 10 years when the 30th anniversary is celebrated? Martin maintains it will continue to be a popular property and act as an symbol for the city.

“The property and this tower have tremendous longevity. It’s a beneficiary of Las Vegas in general and the property where we don’t try and be something we’re not,” he said.

But Martin would suggest one major change for the tower.

“I would put it at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo,” Martin said. “It would be absolutely tremendous.”

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