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The Renovation Era

For 20 years, Las Vegas had a love affair with the implosion. During the rocket ride of the 1990s and early 2000s, big crowds gathered to witness old hotel-casinos shudder and collapse into heaps of concrete and steel, followed by the rise of roiling clouds of dust. News cameras recorded these orchestrated acts of destruction from multiple perspectives, while handfuls of preservationists lamented the loss of history.

The piles of rubble were quickly scraped up and carted off to who knows where, leaving vast tracts of prime real estate. Billions were invested in the new resorts, which were far bigger and more audacious than their predecessors. Millions were spent to promote the new brands and their accouterments, from volcanoes and pirate battles to roller coasters and gondola rides.

From 1989, when The Mirage launched this new Las Vegas era, to 2009, when CityCenter debuted, the practice of implosion followed by ground-up construction was the paradigm. But after real estate nosedived and the national economy tanked, that economic model became impractical. The era of the spanking-new billion-dollar megaresort ended.

It was fun while it lasted, but don’t despair: There’s a bright side to this story. The Megaresort Era is over, but the Renovation Era is well under way.

I took a couple of tours this week. My first stop was the Tropicana Hotel. When it opened in 1957, the Tropicana was one of the Strip’s most elegant resorts. It introduced the famed Paris show “Folies Bergere” to Las Vegas, and the Mary Kaye Trio performed in the lounge. James Bond stays at the Tropicana in the 1971 film “Diamonds Are Forever.”

But progress passed the Tropicana by. While the MGM Grand, Bellagio, Venetian and many other resorts raised the bar in Las Vegas, the Tropicana aged and stagnated. Talk of course turned to implosion but the right mix of financing and vision never materialized.

The Tropicana became a dinosaur on the Strip.

A white knight, however, has come to the hotel’s rescue. When Alex Yemenidjian, former chief executive at MGM Resorts, entered the picture in 2009, the economic climate made it impossible to follow the formula of imploding the resort and building a new one in its place. Instead, Yemenidjian and the Onex Corp. have spearheaded a $180 million renovation that is restoring the Tropicana’s former glory.

Adopting a South Beach theme, Yemenidjian and company have transformed the Tropicana from a ratty Strip liability to a casually elegant competitor for the middle-market visitor. When you enter the casino, the first thing you notice are the white marble walkways and high ceilings, contributing to a bright and airy feel.

All of the Trop’s 1,650 rooms are being renovated. There are new restaurants and new lounges. I peeked inside a two-story penthouse suite with amazing Strip views. Later this month, the Las Vegas Mob Experience will open, highlighting the lowlights of Las Vegas’ organized crime history. In the spring, Nikki Beach, a popular international resort franchise, will debut next to the Trop’s pool.

What isn’t changing is the resort’s name. The Tropicana is one of the great icons of Las Vegas. Rather than starting from scratch, Yemenidjian has spent a fraction of the cost of a new resort to infuse a 53-year-old brand with new life.

A similar story is being told at the El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas. The El Cortez opened in 1941, with a guy named Bugsy Siegel as one of the early investors. For decades, downtown casino legend Jackie Gaughan helmed the El Cortez, serving a mix of tourists and loyal locals.

But the Strip’s increasing dominance took a toll on all the Fremont Street casinos, including the El Cortez. While investors plowed their money into the megaresorts on Las Vegas Boulevard South, the El Cortez and its downtown brethren failed to keep pace.

Over the past few years, however, several downtown casinos have taken steps to clean up their acts and try new things. The El Cortez has been at the head of the pack, spending $30 million to renovate its 300 rooms and other amenities, while retaining its classic exterior and signage. Next year, the El Cortez plans to open a swimming pool — a downtown rarity — and host outdoor entertainment events.

The casino caters to two distinct audiences — its longtime customers as well as the Generation X and Y denizens of the burgeoning Fremont East entertainment district. As it prepares to celebrate its 70th year, the El Cortez is thriving by honoring its history while adapting to a changing marketplace.

On the day I toured the Tropicana and El Cortez, the news leaked that Zappos, the online shoe retailer, intends to leave its Henderson office park to set up shop in the Las Vegas City Hall building. This move fits perfectly with the new ethos of the Renovation Era.

What’s next? Will Circus Circus get a much-needed makeover? How about the ragged Riviera?

Whatever happens, we’re not likely to see another epic implosion anytime soon.

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

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