By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
LAS VEGAS WAS ALREADY IN A LULL BEFORE SEPtember 11. Whispering about a saturated market is taboo here, but after a frenetic building boom that added 60,000 new rooms in 12 years, pushing it ahead of either Los Angeles or New York in sheer lodging capacity, Las Vegas seems to have reached a critical plateau. No new major hotels, except for Wynn's D.I. replacement, are on the drawing boards. They can't build schools fast enough to serve the 5,000 new residents who move in every month. And the same two-lane, already overcrowded highway still connects it to its major feeder point, Los Angeles.
"Way back in 1955, Lifemagazine ran a big cover story asking if Las Vegas had been overbuilt," laughs gambling industry historian Bill Thompson. "But we have always found we can build more. Always have, always will. And the demographics support us. Every day in the U.S., 10,000 people turn age 50. These baby boomers are affluent, they have fewer obligations, their houses are being paid off, their kids are leaving home, and they are at the peak of their earning power. Just as all those diaper companies made money in the 50s off this same generation, so will the Las Vegas casinos in the years still to come."
Or will they? The last recession in the early '90s had no visible impact on Vegas revenues -- neither did the Gulf War crisis. But this war and this recession do seem to be affecting business. A white tent has been set up next door to the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino so that the Culinary Union can tend to the hundreds of Vegas workers laid off since September 11. Employment figures fluctuate as much as room rates in this town, but best estimates are that 15,000 or more workers have been pink-slipped since September 11 as tourism and air travel retracted nationwide. Now, nearly two months later, many casinos report weekday traffic to be down by as much as 30 percent from normal levels. And with the national economy officially in recession, Vegas' nerves of steel are weakening.
But Steve Wynn is playing the long odds. In the hours right before the detonation, he finally broke a long, self-imposed silence and spoke in some detail of his plans for the Desert Inn to one local Las Vegas reporter and again during a public speech at a casino trade exposition. First, he insists, any downturn in entertainment or gambling appetites is merely transitory. And just a few weeks from now, in December, Wynn says, he will commence construction on his new $2 billion resort, Le Reve -- in French, "The Dream" -- named for the Picasso painting, which he, of course, owns. With at least 2,500 rooms, 42 stories and a series of man-made lakes, the hotel will take approximately 30 months to build. And in some faint recognition of the tradition of the Desert Inn, the new hotel will have no theme -- other than elegance. "It's time for Las Vegas to have its own hotel," said the man responsible for demolishing the last great landmark hotel in town. Says Wynn of Le Reve: "People are going to come from everywhere to see it and marvel at it."
IT'S NEARLY 2 A.M. ON THIS TUESDAY MORNING IN October, and as Steve Wynn himself -- safe on the northern end of the D.I. property -- prepares to push the appropriate detonation button, an anticipatory hush falls over the crowd. Suddenly, it's 2 a.m. on the dot, the button is pressed and a staccato series of a half-dozen booms are sound out. A rat-a-tat of a dozen more pops resonates off the concrete canyon walls of the Strip. The Fifth Lady momentarily shimmies and shudders in a macabre death rattle and then, less than 20 seconds after the fuses ignite, implodes. From her gravesite rises a towering cloud of dust that in the still night air drifts ever so slowly toward the darkness of the desert.
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