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The Kingpins

Las Vegas Power Brokers
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

Steve Wynn's familiar voice found me in a rental car. "I've decided to keep a low profile," he said. "To keep quiet. I've been out front for twenty-five years, and I've taken the heat for it. Let somebody else talk for a while."  

I'd asked him what the future of Las Vegas would look like and what his contribution to it would be, significant questions for a historical figure. But Wynn isn't giving away such information, not anymore. He's a poker player, and he's holding his cards close. He has lately lost the Mirage and the Bellagio, two of the most important hotel concepts built anywhere in the last quarter-century. As a developer, he's starting over with the relatively small property of the Desert Inn, which he'll likely try to destroy and rebuild. It won't be easy. There are those who wonder if his time at the center of Las Vegas development has passed.  

Driving down Las Vegas Boulevard, the famous Strip, after hanging up with Wynn, I stared out at an urban landscape unique in the world. Block after block, it struck me how profoundly his influence has affected the city. In a sense, Wynn didn't need to say more. Those hotels stacked along either side of the street, the innovations and their imitations, they were eloquent enough.  

Homages to his creativity beckoned everywhere. To my right was Paris Las Vegas, built in the spirit of Wynn's massive theme hotels, and the Aladdin, the newest--and perhaps the last--of the soaring cityscapes. Behind me was Caesars Palace, where a task force was busy compiling a wish list of 20 world-class chefs in an effort to compete with the restaurants at Wynn's Bellagio, and The Venetian, where gondoliers ferried guests through an indoor lagoon in an effort to capture the excitement that Wynn first generated at the Mirage in the early '90s.  

A century from now, students of cultural history are apt to walk the Strip with notebooks in hand, tracing a timeline in the steel and glass. Well, maybe they won't. If Las Vegas history holds, all these hotels will be long gone, replaced by even more dazzling constructions. Unlike the other great cities of the world, which are vast and multifarious, Las Vegas can be shaped in a man's image.   Wynn hasn't been the only man doing the sculpting.

Today's Strip is a product of the imaginations of a handful of visionary entrepreneurs--and when someone is called a visionary in Las Vegas, it's meant in the most literal sense. A developer envisions a building, and then he builds it. Sheldon Adelson made Las Vegas a true convention city. Arthur Goldberg collected land and created properties across the socioeconomic spectrum. Kirk Kerkorian's $3 billion bankroll makes him one of the world's richest men, and he now controls Wynn's empire. Bill Timmins recently rebuilt the Aladdin to massive scale.  

The hotel boom is over. A decade of unprecedented upheaval for the city's skyline has ended, leaving the New York skyline, the Eiffel Tower, a pyramid, an Italian lake, and various minarets and towers in its wake. Today a handful of developers control most of the properties on the Strip, and most of the usable land, too. Evolution will be slower.   What form will it take? That's what I wanted to know.  

In the past decade, these visionary developers have remade Las Vegas as a tourist destination. They've broadened its appeal beyond the gambler and the nightclubber, created the most impressive street of restaurants anywhere, won substantial convention business. From the hard-edged, after-midnight world of the Rat Pack, with its dark sexuality, its Mafia overtones and its alcoholic haze, Las Vegas has repositioned itself as sweetness and light. It's a shopper's heaven, a sybarite's haven, an architecture buff's dream, a fantasyland for the epicurean spirit.  

Wynn stands as the centerpiece because without him it wouldn't have happened. "Wynn was enlightened," says Dean Harrold, the president and chief operating officer of Caesars Palace, which is now owned by Goldberg's Park Place Entertainment. "His insight was that the gambling will happen no matter what, but give your guests other things to do and they'll spend money."   Wynn didn't install the first celebrity chef or ritzy shopping area in a hotel; Caesars did, with Wolfgang Puck's Spago and the Forum Shops, back in 1992. Even in the majestic Bellagio, Wynn didn't provide a room product commensurate with the rest of the hotel experience, unlike Adelson's 750-square-foot standard suites in The Venetian. What he did do was build upscale destination hotels that transcended gaming. The rest followed.  

A decade ago, if you weren't there to gamble or in a lather to see Julio Iglesias, Vegas offered nothing. Today, nongaming revenue from the Strip is approaching gaming revenue; this year's ratio is projected to be 53 percent to 47 percent. Even more astonishing, every significant property on the Strip has adapted to the paradigm shift. "This used to be a stopover destination," says Harrold. "It's now a resort destination. Gaming isn't the only experience."   The most noticeable change has been the dining, which once meant mountains of scrambled eggs on a buffet table, and sweet-and-sour pork as a high-end meal. The list of top restaurateurs who either have a successful franchise or have relocated here has become too long to recite without omitting someone. Only Chicago's Charlie Trotter, who stubbornly insisted on three-hour dinners, came and closed.  


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