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All of that is great, but is any of this high-minded stuff a tourist magnet?
“I don’t think people go to Las Vegas for a hard dose of reality,” LaFleur says. “They go to be entertained and have a good time and to escape their everyday existence for a period of time. The appeal of CityCenter to the Architectural Digest crowd probably makes sense, but to be a mass-market player, you need people with fanny packs to come in and play the slot machines.”
Ortega agrees that the leisure traveler may not care, but corporate-meeting planners do: “It is definitely a differentiating factor. A convention can and will and has not selected a venue because it didn’t have a sustainability plan.”
Murren believes that eco-minded travelers, especially the quarter of the market that flocks in from Southern California, “will find all of this very interesting, very appealing.”
An Economic Cure or Poison?
A year ago, on the brink of opening Encore, Steve Wynn was furious about the state of the economy and, more specifically, the condition of Las Vegas. Pacing his Picasso-adorned office in a rage, he took note of the fact that every one of his competitors teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in large part because they had taken on huge amounts of debt.
“It’s disgusting what’s happened to my city,” seethed the man who conjured up the Mirage, who single-handedly set in motion the Vegas mega-resort era and whose office Murren now occupies at Bellagio. “It’s disgusting what they’ve done to this community.”
Murren, not surprisingly, begs to differ. True, he says, MGM Mirage has “more debt than I would like.” True, the company came days away in March from defaulting on a bank covenant, spinning into bankruptcy and having to shut down construction on CityCenter. But intense negotiations and fancy accounting helped to avert that, and now the project has created 12,000 new service-sector jobs at a time when Nevada’s unemployment rate exceeds 13 percent, an all-time high.
“We as a community were lulled into a sense of confidence that was undeserved,” he says. “I’m part of it. ... Even the most bearish people of the time, because they did not get the financial crisis and the layering of that on top of the global recession.”
Yet being lectured on risk by Wynn clearly sticks in Murren’s craw. Wynn’s attacks seem to ignore that he, too, relied on huge debt loads and faith in his own vision of a new, uncharted Las Vegas when he built the Mirage and Bellagio.
“We didn’t get here because we sold out and went private so some shareholders could make a lot of money,” Murren says. “Our company’s debt went up dramatically because we’re trying to do something for the community and for ourselves, something different. It’s not going to be our competitors, it’s going to be this company that will single-handedly pull us out of the two-year decline in visitation and drive more people here.”
This is, in fact, a prolonged era of despair for Las Vegas. Two multibillion-dollar resort projects — Echelon and Fontainebleau — were halted halfway through and now stand as mocking monuments to the hubristic optimism that once pervaded this town.
So a one-industry city of 2 million residents is hoping that Murren’s vision proves appealing enough to spur recession-weary Americans and dollar-rich foreigners to come again — and again. The buzz starting to percolate across the Internet has been almost uniformly positive, a sea change from years of construction in which most of the national publicity involved a rash of worker deaths, a story so huge it netted the muckraking Las Vegas Sun a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering a shameful level of safety standards and lax regulatory oversight.
That’s why it must relieve Murren to hear someone like Hillegas, whose eager readers have been picking over every emerging design factoid about the project for years, say this: “They bet it all on black, and it looks like a pretty good bet right now. If nothing else, the place is an amazing achievement. They created a miniature city out of nothing.”
Or something like a city, anyway. But lest anyone worry that Murren has completely dispensed with the Vegas-ness of it all, two days after Aria opens, the property’s signature show begins previews. Even if the rest of the project appears uneasy with its lineage, this one has none of that ambivalence.