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Living in the Dream

Once a weekend haunt of stags and conventioneers, Las Vegas has morphed into a second-home and retirement capital for baby boomers
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Vegas, Mar/Apr 2006

(continued from page 1)

"All I tell our salespeople to say is, 'Look around,'" says Jeffrey Soffer, the principal of developer Turnberry Associates, which built Turnberry Place, the first large-scale condominium complex near the Strip, and is now putting up a two-building condo project called Turnberry Towers. "I have six towers in the ground in Las Vegas in various stages. Six in the ground! That's all you need to know about my vision of the future."

As late as five years ago, no condominiums of note existed on or near the Strip. That meant no high-rise options for a snowbird looking at sunny Las Vegas, not south Florida or Palm Springs, as a potential retirement home. Or for a businessman or high-volume gambler who found himself flying in so often that he figured it would be more convenient to buy an apartment.

In truth, there wasn't a market for them. Until hoteliers Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson altered the paradigm of the city by opening, in rapid succession, the Bellagio and The Venetian in 1998 and 1999, few vacationers, other than the gaming fanatics, wanted to come in for more than the occasional gin-soaked, blackjack-besotted weekend. There was hardly anywhere to eat, not much to shop for, and the nightly entertainment consisted of the usual suspects (Wayne Newton, David Brenner) playing to the same Middle-American mentality that has driven Las Vegas tourism from the start.

Against a changing hospitality market, with gambling on the Internet and spas and top golf courses at chain hotels around the country, that wasn't enough. "Let's face it, if you just had shitty gambling casinos out there like you used to, Las Vegas would be nothing today," says Soffer. "Gambling is a commodity. It's in 48 states. You needed to have the best restaurants, shopping, entertainment and everything else."

"The Bellagio was the first project that attracted the eye of women from Greenwich [Connecticut]," says John Riordan, a Turnberry senior vice president who oversees sales and marketing for the western region. "People who'd previously thought that Vegas was seedy, not for them."

Today, more than a dozen hotels-some of which don't even have casinos-woo the same upscale demographic. Vacationers are likely to come for not just a weekend but a week, and to bring a spouse and maybe even a family with them. They eat, they shop, they play golf, they bask in the 300-plus days of sunshine, they celebrity-spot in the nightclubs-and, oh, yeah, they gamble, too. It's like Boca Raton, but with something to do.

"It is very clear that at least 50 percent of the people who are coming here are coming for a principally nongaming experience," says Eichner. "Which is not to say that they don't gamble, but that isn't what drives them. The combination of entertainment, shopping, fine dining and the weather, which translates into 15 to 20 fine golf courses, has made this into the premier destination in the country."

From there, it's not such a huge conceptual leap to owning a home, perhaps with an eye on retirement. "People who have been here and like what Las Vegas has to offer, they're going to come here before they go to Florida," says Ruth Roth, who arrived from Miami four years ago to sell real estate. "You can go to Mt. Charleston and ski in 45 minutes, or to Lake Mead for water sports. You can drive two hours to Zion National Park, or another hour and get to Bryce Canyon. You're two hours from the Grand Canyon, four hours to L.A. There's no state income tax. And we don't have 13 hurricanes a year."

As a result, says Riordan, "The market has expanded exponentially in the past two years for condos and condo/hotels near the Strip." Turnberry Place followed the 84-unit Park Towers, a 20-story structure, as the first major condo complex to open, in 2000, and now the construction of the last of its four 40-story buildings is under way. "For the first five years, we were the only one spending advertising dollars," Riordan says. "All of a sudden, there's dozens," including four developers that recently placed full-page ads in one issue of Los Angeles Magazine. According to Riordan, Turnberry paid $1.5 million an acre for its land. Now the going rate is closer to $10 million to $12 million.

Turnberry started selling units in 1999, targeting, in part, local couples who were trading down in square footage and wanted the convenience of a high-rise. Other early buyers included Southern Californians seeking second homes. "You look at the trends in the business, you see things," says Soffer. "I figured there were a lot of people who wanted to move here, but not deal with the congestion and the traffic." Now Soffer has almost 800 units filled, many with full-time residents. At Turnberry's posh Stirling Club, the centerpiece of a $45 million, 80,000-square-foot clubhouse that includes a health club and a nightclub, a cigar and billiards room, a pool and spa, tennis courts, and vast amounts of meeting space, members enjoy the ambience of the country club they left behind back home.

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