Ve­gas takes a gam­ble

As the US econ­omy stum­bles, its ritzy gam­bling cap­i­tal is load­ing the dice for growth, Martin Kelly re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Primespace -

ON New Year’s Eve, for­mer Syd­ney bal­let dancer Anna Hous­sels found her­self at what felt like the top of the world in Las Ve­gas, watch­ing the mid­night fire­works while hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple packed The Strip.

Stand­ing in a lux­u­ri­ous suite at the Bel­la­gio Ho­tel, sur­rounded by pow­er­ful lo­cals and wealthy out­siders, Hous­sels, now the vice- pres­i­dent of VIP res­i­den­tial sales at the $ US8 bil­lion ($ 8.6 bil­lion) Ci­tyCen­tre project, knew she was in the right place at the right time. There’s noth­ing like Ve­gas,’’ she says.

And right now the fa­mous city of dreams — where the pop­u­la­tion has quadru­pled to more than two mil­lion in the past 20 years — is wit­ness­ing one of the big­gest gam­bles in its long and richly che­quered his­tory.

A rich cast of char­ac­ters is pump­ing bil­lions of dol­lars into the re­de­vel­op­ment of Las Ve­gas Boule­vard — aka The Strip — just as the US econ­omy be­gins to stum­ble.

They in­clude Amer­ica’s thir­drich­est man, bil­lion­aire Shel­don Adel­son, who has just opened the 3000- room, 50- storey Palazzo Re­sortHo­tel- Casino, the first new ho­tel on The Strip in three years.

Adel­son, the ma­jor share­holder in pub­licly- listed Las Ve­gas Sands Cor­po­ra­tion, shrugged off sug­ges­tions that the Palazzo would strug­gle.

He said: We’re go­ing to cus­tomers from other ho­tels.’’

Also play­ing a star­ring role is Las Ve­gas leg­end Steve Wynn. Adelsen and Wynn, the only Las Ve­gas op­er­a­tors who won con­ces­sions in Ma­cau, used to be friendly ri­vals but those days are long gone. Reg­u­lar dis­putes, of­ten petty, now char­ac­terise their re­la­tion­ship. Wynn is build­ing En­core, the sec­ond tower of Wynn Las Ve­gas, a $ US1.4 bil­lion ho­tel and casino with 2000 rooms that is due to open later this year.

Don­ald Trump is also along for the ride, build­ing Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel and Tow­ers, while Palms Place, a 50- storey con­do­minium ho­tel and spa tower’’, is sched­uled for a 2008 open­ing.

And this is just the be­gin­ning, ac­cord­ing to the Las Ve­gas Con­ven­tion and Vis­i­tors Author­ity, which es­ti­mates that there is more than $ US40 bil­lion in de­vel­op­ment ei­ther planned or un­der way.

It says that if ev­ery­thing goes ac­cord­ing to plan, there will be an ex­tra 40,000 new ho­tel rooms and thou-

take sands more lux­ury apart­ments in Las Ve­gas by 2010.

LVCVA spokes­woman Erika Pope, in a typ­i­cal dis­play of Las Ve­gas op­ti­mism, be­lieves the city can han­dle the ca­pac­ity in­crease.

She cites the 2007 av­er­age ho­tel oc­cu­pancy rate of more than 90 per cent which has meant that tourists — more than three mil­lion visit Las Ve­gas ev­ery month — are of­ten un­able to find rooms.

Pope adds that peo­ple have been pre­dict­ing the demise of Las Ve­gas since 1955, when Life mag­a­zine ran a cover story ask­ing: Las Ve­gas — Has the Boom Over Ex­tended?’’

Not yet,’’ is her an­swer. What­ever hap­pens, the im­me­di­ate out­come of all the build­ing ac­tiv­ity is chaos.

The Las Ve­gas Strip is a jum­bled vis­age of cranes, traf­fic, peo­ple and neon; posters, screens, screams, foun­tains, gawk­ers, touts, tourists; a pyra­mid, a roller coaster, an im­i­ta­tion Statue of Lib­erty and a fake Eif­fel Tower. Touts wear T- shirts promis­ing Girls to your room in 20 min­utes’’ while young tourists chug mar­gar­i­tas from yard glasses and make their way to the next casino, where they can light a cig­a­rette with­out re­buke and party the night away.

Work­ing at the cen­tre of this frenzy is Hous­sels.

As vice- pres­i­dent of VIP Sales at Ci­tyCen­tre, the big­gest of all the Las Ve­gas de­vel­op­ments, her job is to travel the world and en­cour­age wealthy clients to in­vest in the mas­sive project, de­scribed as an ur­ban metro- polis’’. The 30ha, $ US8 bil­lion de­vel­op­ment in­cludes a 4000- room hotel­casino, two 400- room bou­tique ho­tels ( one of them a Man­darin Ori­en­tal), 2650 apart­ments and 140,000sq m of shop­ping, din­ing and en­ter­tain­ment space.

There are 5600 work­ers and 25 cranes on site with de­vel­op­ment pro­ceed­ing at a hel­ter- skel­ter rate and com­ple­tion sched­uled for the end of 2009.

Hous­sels says apart­ment sales re­main strong, de­spite in­creas­ing ev­i­dence of a slow­ing lo­cal econ­omy.

New hous­ing per­mits have dropped 90 per cent, year on year, in Las Ve­gas, while new home sales are down 55 per cent and av­er­age new home prices are down 17 per cent to $ US280,000.

By con­trast, apart­ments at Ci­tycen­tre start at more than $ US500,000, with many sell­ing for well over $ US1 mil­lion.

Hous­sels says more than 1600 prop­er­ties have sold off- plan in the past year, many to in­ter­na­tional buy­ers from Europe, the Mid­dle East and Asia.

Hous­sels has been sell­ing real es­tate in the US for al­most 10 years — a ma­jor de­par­ture from her ca­reer as a se­nior prin­ci­pal dancer with the Aus­tralian Bal­let, which she joined at the age of 16.

She headed to Los An­ge­les with thoughts of an act­ing ca­reer, land­ing with a suit­case just think­ing I could redo Fame — I was ready for ex­cite­ment but didn’t re­alise how Hol­ly­wood ticks’’.

Within two years the act­ing dream had faded and Hous­sels had ob­tained a Cal­i­for­nia real es­tate li­cence.

I sold in San Fran­cisco, San Diego and ended up in Ve­gas. It was al­ways high- end and high- rise.’’

She had her own apart­ment bro­ker­age in Las Ve­gas be­fore tak­ing on her role at Ci­tyCen­tre, which is be­ing de­vel­oped by MGM Mi­rage, the big­gest ho­tel casino op­er­a­tor in Las Ve­gas.

Las Ve­gas is a very unique place,’’ she says. But se­nior MGM Mi­rage man­age­ment ad­mit that, de­spite what many peo­ple think, it is still part of the real world.

The no­tion that Las Ve­gas is im­mune from th­ese down­turns in the econ­omy is com­pletely false,’’ MGM Mi­rage se­nior vice- pres­i­dent Alan Feld­man told the Las Ve­gas Re­view Jour­nal .

We may be bet­ter able to with­stand it than other mar­ket­places but we’re not im­mune from it.’’

On top of the world: Anna Hous­sels, above, with a model of the $ US8 bil­lion Ci­tyCen­tre project, which is now a hive of build­ing ac­tiv­ity, left

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