By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The short-term issue is whether CityCenter is splashy enough to lure Californians out of their recession funk for a trip across the desert. Las Vegas is already offering steep discounts on rooms, meals, entertainment — even sin. Given that Southern Californians comprise about a quarter of the visitors to Las Vegas, curiosity about CityCenter and a desire to visit Vegas during a fire sale could go a long way toward healing Nevada’s economic hangover.
But the broader issue, one that will linger long after the recession, is whether CityCenter truly is the future of Las Vegas. It’s a notion as intriguing as the spectacular leaning towers at the heart of MGM’s glitzy new cityscape.
Is It Really A City?
To understand what MGM Mirage has built and why, you can begin with the sort of flack Murren took from his New York City friends when, in 1998, at age 36, he left his gig as a top equity analyst to become the chief financial officer for what was then MGM Grand Inc. He was a child of Gotham, growing up in suburban Connecticut and being taken into the city by his mother for doses of high culture “as often as possible.”
The notion of uprooting for a life in Vegas “was preposterous to my friends and family,” Murren said in an interview last month. “Why would you move to such a place as this, when you have all this in front of you, all the museums, all the cultural options, all the educational options?”
It certainly wasn’t because he loved gambling or fast times. While Vegas has long bred its executives unusually young for corporate America, Murren was unusual inasmuch as most of his counterparts had grown up in the green-felt jungle as the sons of casino bosses or inveterate gamblers themselves.
Murren, who ascended to company president in 1999 and CEO in 2008, applied his Wall Street know-how in finance to help his boss, majority shareholder Kirk Kerkorian, buy Mirage Resorts and then Mandalay Resort Group. The company now dominates the Vegas market.
As the years ticked by and Vegas boomed on the strength of increasingly posh hotels built by competitors Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, the pieces began to fall into place for Murren to conceive of a Vegas his old Manhattan set could enjoy and even respect — Vegas 4.0.
The three earlier phases have been well-chronicled, moving out of the pre-1980s mob-riddled era into a Disneyland-for-adults-themed-casino epoch that by the turn of the century gave way to the naughty, sultry but also expensive “What happens here stays here” pop-culture-zeitgeist version.
So what reincarnation, pray tell, would be next for the mother of all tourist destinations?
Murren’s company sat on the last large undeveloped tract of land at the heart of the Strip. In 2004, when it seemed nothing could possibly pierce the ever-expanding Vegas bubble, Murren brought to the board a diagram that was the first iteration of CityCenter.
“Jim’s vision was that if we were going to step out and develop this land, we should do something extraordinary, and if we had the money and the inclination, we could set the bar so high that nobody else could ever get over it,” says Bobby Baldwin, then president of Bellagio, who would be tasked with overseeing the construction of CityCenter.
From the start, analogies to New York City were explicit. The acreage, a spokesman notes, was larger than Rockefeller Center, Times Square and SoHo combined. Among the first architects recruited was Libeskind, the then–World Trade Center reconstruction master planner, to design the Crystals shopping district.
And last month, Murren compared CityCenter to other structures along the Strip by bathing his remarks in New York references. The nearby Panorama Towers are “not Fifth Avenue. And Trump [International Tower] certainly is not Fifth Avenue, and it doesn’t have Central Park in front of it like CityCenter does.”
Central Park? In front of CityCenter? There are some trees and landscaping, and what’s being referred to as a “pocket park” — another NYC reference, natch — that features sitting areas around a classic Henry Moore sculpture of a woman and babe in repose.
But Central Park?
Last month at a symposium focused on Wynn’s lush new Encore Las Vegas resort, Wynn’s longtime interior designer, Roger Thomas, offered this backhanded slap: “I don’t think that when you have a panel about the design of CityCenter, you’ll have a landscape architect as part of it, as we do here today.”
Other observers aren’t convinced CityCenter is really a major departure for Las Vegas. “It’s the nice new casino resort in Las Vegas. Is it anything more than that? I don’t know yet,” says gaming stock analyst Robert LaFleur of the Susequehanna Financial Group.
Hillegas, of RateVegas.com, also plans to wait and see: “They like to say that CityCenter is unique, and you won’t find the word theme anywhere in their press material,” he offers. “But it’s city-themed.”