Wednesday, December 2, 2009

OK, Back to More Important Things: CITY CENTER, CITY CENTER, CITY CENTER!

Where do I start? Just where do I start! It's what we're all talking about, whether we like it or not.

Pictures of Vdara's suites are surfacing, and from the photos they look pretty appealing. They don't look too small, but they're not "true suites" either (just an entertainment center separating the bedroom area from the living area). Still, the design looks intriguing.

Meanwhile, MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren recently spoke with Robin Leach on what City Center means for "The New Las Vegas". One thing that struck me was when he challenged head-on the charge from detractors that City Center will fail because it doesn't offer enough gambling. Murren obviously thinks otherwise...

I feel strongly about this. Las Vegas used to be where gamblers went on vacation, but now I feel like its vacationers that may gamble. It’s business travelers, it’s leisure travelers. It’s my mom from Connecticut who doesn’t spend a nickel in a slot machine, but she is a wealthy woman. She loves our restaurants, goes to our shows and shops -- she is a spa girl and loves the treatments. I feel very strongly that if we are going to break out of the shackles of being just a gaming company, we have to do it in a very dramatic way. I feel that this accomplishes that.

I know in my heart that people are going to come here with no interest at all in gambling, and they are going to enjoy it because what we have done here. It’s going to exceed their expectations and be at least comparable or superior to resort environments they have had anywhere in the world because of the energy, the excitement, the quality of the restaurants, and, yes, we have a very important casino, which will be the beating heart of this and which I think will drive a lot of international business.

If we are truly going to evolve as a community, then we have to get out of the mind set of one-way moving sidewalks in The Forum Shops and telling people where they are going to eat and what they are going to do. People are too discerning now. We created a very demanding consumer, and I am glad for that. Not everyone has to win, Robin. This is America. This is a capitalist country. I am a capitalist, and I am all for making money, and I think we will here.

And time will tell if Murren is right. Personally, I find it fascinating that he actually had me in mind! I'm not really a big gambler, but I do enjoy eating out, shopping (or at least window shopping), and seeing shows when I'm on The Strip. In many ways I've been called "the atypical Las Vegan", but apparently Jim Murren doesn't think I'm all that atypical.

Oh, and did you know Steve Wynn is rooting for City Center? But wait, he also wants us to know that it's nothing, absolutely nothing (!!!!), like The Mirage. This part just makes me laugh.

In this run-up to CityCenter’s opening, Wynn is trying not to criticize the MGM gang, although earlier this year he told Jon Ralston he had never begun construction on a project without having all the financing in place. That was a shot at MGM’s ongoing challenges nailing down the funds amid a frozen credit market, a disastrous housing collapse and a recalcitrant joint-venture partner, Dubai World.

Murren, reacting to that notion and again reaffirming CityCenter’s analogy to the Mirage, questioned to me Wynn’s own grip on the past.

“Steve is a very interesting, creative guy and he has a wonderful view of the future and a view of the history which is not always aligned with my recollection of the history whatsoever or a lot of people’s,” Murren said. “To have that point of view is to dismiss the entire corporate career of Mirage Resorts when they bet the house so many times, when they were a product of junk bonds in the ’80s and when they were building Mirage and they were teetering on the brink of not being able to open or finish because they were so overextended.”

Nonsense, Wynn fired back.

“At that time, my cash position was $750 million from [the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City], and in my loan, I had over $200 million more than the place was supposed to cost. It was in my financials!”

Haha. The main reason why so many were betting against Steve Wynn and The Mirage in 1989 was chiefly that he was so over-leveraged in junk bond fueled debt that he needed to make over $1 million a day just for the casino to stay afloat. Fortunately for Wynn, he quickly surpassed that after opening... And you know the rest of the Wynn-Mirage story.

It seems some other "Old School Vegas" people also have strong opinions on City Center, and John L. Smith was there to catch them.

"Twenty-five years ago, if somebody came to us with this, we would have shot 'em," [MGM Mirage Board Member Mel] Wolzinger says. "When they first brought it to the board, everyone was skeptical. But it's unbelievable. Everything that Bobby Baldwin said he'd do, he did. I'm glad we did it. It will be a good thing for the city. It will put a lot of people to work. And just look at the workmanship."

He points to the marble floors and design lines that make it anything but an ordinary Vegas addition. Then he points to a section of the lobby.

"All the places I owned could fit in this spot," Wolzinger says. "Ernie's, the Lift ... throw in my house, too. Years ago, if the space didn't generate a profit, it was no good."

And I guess this is the perfect way to wrap things up for now. We came around full circle. A whole lot of "Old School Vegas" people still have a hard time understanding how City Center works. After all, it seems to go against everything that we thought Vegas was: gambling, cheap food, plenty of drinks, fast money, easy sex, bargains galore, and did I mention gambling? MGM Mirage blew up "conventional wisdom" about Vegas with this, and it seems at least a few "old timers" are now appreciating it upon seeing the place.

But will all the rest of us? We'll see. I'll be on deck tomorrow when Mandarin Oriental opens, and I'll be coming back home tomorrow just in time for Crystals' opening.

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