Tenants show interest in $6.5 billion Vietnamese project

For a first-time exhibitor tucked away in the outer aisle of Las Vegas Convention Center’s Central Hall, Madame Thao’s Happyland theme park model was drawing a small crowd of curious onlookers Tuesday at ReCon 2010.

Las Vegas architect Paul Steelman, designer of the $6.2 billion tourism development planned near Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, had persuaded his client to show the 12-foot, $60,000 model at the annual convention presented by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The show at the Las Vegas Convention Center attracts about 30,000 of the world’s leading shopping center developers, retailers, brokers, financial institutions, and product and service suppliers to Las Vegas each year, taking up 1 million square feet of space with its Trade Exposition, Leasing Mall and educational sessions.

Council officials estimate that 25 percent of all retail leases are conceived or consummated at the convention. Many companies claim they’ll write a year’s worth of business at the three-day show.

Steelman said ReCon 2010 generates the kind of interest needed to fill 350,000 square feet of retail space at Happyland, which is being developed by Phan Thi Phuong Thao, also known as Madame Thao.

“She’s had tremendous response. We’ve had over 100 interested tenants,” Steelman said, naming off Bed Bath & Beyond, Cheesecake Factory and fast-food restaurant operator Yum Brands.

Madame Thao and her Khang Thong Co. have committed to attending ReCon again next year, and an earlier sign-up should result in a larger and better exhibit location, the architect said. He sees the company coming to the show for four years.

Even in recessionary times and a declining retail market, people in the business feel they have to be in Las Vegas for this convention, said Patrick Donahue, chairman and chief executive officer of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Donahue Schriber. His company owns or manages 83 retail properties in the Western United States, including six in the Las Vegas Valley and two in Sparks.

“It’s clearly stronger than it was last year,” Donahue said about ReCon 2010. “It’s off from the peak of 2007 and 2008, but that wasn’t very productive. You had too many people that didn’t need to be here. That isn’t productive. This is a big investment for us. It costs the company a lot.”

Steelman, who has three offices in Southeast Asia, said it’s good to get a job from 8,000 miles away that keeps a lot of his people employed here. All of the character animation for Happyland will be created at Steelman Partners’ Las Vegas studio, which employs about 25 artists.

The entertainment complex, 16 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, will feature a theme park designed by Steelman Partners; leisure and convention hotels; cultural arts village; modern art museums; shopping mall; water park; and boardwalk that runs along the Vam Co Dong River.

Happyland is similar in concept to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and Disney World in Orlando, Fla., with animated characters and amusement rides in themed sections of the park such as Bugsville, Pin and Ping’s Imagination Island and Ancient Cities.

It will take more than a year to design the theme park and three years to build it, Steelman said. He set the opening date for April 24, 2014, on Madame Thao’s birthday.

“We think it’ll be a tremendous financial success,” he said. “First of all, it’s cheaper to build over there. You’ve got pent-up demand for entertainment offerings. Then you’ve got a very friendly government that’s interested in tourism and the overall good of the country. Put all those together and you can start to see Las Vegas in the old days.”

Paul Kauffman, a commercial real estate lender from Cleveland, said the atmosphere at ReCon 2010 was “cautiously optimistic.”

“You can see people want to make deals, but credit still remains tight. We’re trying to make things work,” Kauffman said. “It’s imperative to keep yourself in front of clients and prospects. It’s a perception that you’re showing support.”

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0491.

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