The Strip Sense: The North will rise again

Steve Wynn chimes in on the flip-flopping of ‘down market’ Strip properties

Steve Friess

A few months ago, the Luxor held a heavily hyped press event at which, with great ceremony, they rolled out their zillion-point plan for reinvigorating the iconic 15-year-old Strip landmark whose greatest distinction has always been its unusual architecture and the beam of light that, regardless of what anyone tells you, cannot be seen from outer space.

It was a well-produced event, and the Luxor’s new owners, MGM Mirage, have some interesting plans for new nightclubs, restaurants and interior design. The room inventory is getting a $40 million makeover, the Egyptian theming is being largely banished and the site of Vegas’ original must-go nightclub Ra has been reworked as LAX.

Great. Terrific. Woo-hoo.

And yet.

I didn’t care. My body was at the Luxor, watching buxom women—why never any hot guys at these things?—herald this second coming, but my brain was decidedly focused on the north end of the Strip. The event was, in fact, just a couple of days before the New Frontier closed for good, the latest in a series of closures and implosions that are shifting the Strip’s center of gravity northward.

Northward. You know. Where it was in the 1960s and 1970s when all the cool kids hung out at the Riv, the Stardust, the Sahara and the Desert Inn. Or, as grumpy older Vegasophiles so often harrumph, “back when the Mob ran Vegas.” And where, in the coming years, multibillion-dollar properties including the Palazzo, Encore, Echelon, Fontainebleau and the Plaza—or whatever the courts let them call it—will rise.

I am not finding fault in any way with the Luxor plans. The new property president, Felix Rappaport, is a proven Mr. Fix-It, having given the New York-New York its spunk with Coyote Ugly and Zumanity before being asked to give Luxor cachet that it never had to begin with. I certainly don’t expect the company to allow their south-Strip haunts to deteriorate like, say, the hapless Tropicana, and I’d be the first one to castigate them if they did. Well, me and their millions of shareholders, I’d imagine.

But I realized in my own mood that this is most likely the turning point for both ends, and I wanted to take note of it. As I’ve written the obituaries for so many late, great Strip hotels in the past few years, I’ve often wondered when they went from hot spot to irrelevancy. By the time I arrived in Vegas in 1996, the north end was already a wasteland, so in my memory it always has been. That it ever had its moments has always been baffling to me.

Likewise, every time a new property opens, it’s so new and fresh and exciting that it seems like it’ll last forever. The inevitable fact that one day they’ll implode each of them is so hard to imagine that I feel silly even writing these words. The Bellagio, like Cats, is forever, right? Well, actually, an MGM Mirage exec once told me they built it to last 50 years. Sounds like a long time, but only by Vegas standards. The Plaza in New York City just celebrated 100 years along the perimeter of Central Park, and that makes it a bit of a youngster.

Certainly, there are exceptions. Okay. There is one exception: Caesars Palace. The property is in such a perpetual state of expansion and renovation that it’s remained modern and relevant throughout its 41 years. It also has the added benefit of having developed unbeatable worldwide brand recognition, and the Harrah’s crowd has beaten back naysayers who feared they’d deface it by treating it as China treats Hong Kong, like a special case that plays by special rules so as to not screw up its prosperity.

I’m not the only one who can see that the bottom block of the Strip is on its way toward passé. Steve Wynn, in a recent interview, referred to the Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Excalibur, Luxor and Tropicana as “down market.” When I specifically asked about the Mandalay Bay, which has always been my favorite all-around hotel, he answered, “Midmarket.” (MGM Mirage declined to respond to Wynn’s remarks.)

And author Dave Schwartz, the Strip historian who heads up UNLV’s Gaming Studies Research Center, says: “What happened was, as the newer stuff opened on the south Strip, the north Strip became budget-oriented. To an extent it’s flipping.”

MGM Mirage folks no doubt will point to their $7 billion City Center development between Monte Carlo and Bellagio as proof that interesting new stuff is still happening south of Spring Mountain. And yet I can’t help but wonder if the splendor of all of that won’t actually accelerate the demise or the disinterest in everything south of it.

I’m not saying the south Strip is over. But I am saying that the beginning of the end is starting to appear. This is a fickle marketplace that ages at a pace unmatched by any other destination. People go to most tourist cities to see things that are hundreds and even thousands of years old. They come here to see what’s new. If it was hot in the 1990s, it’s never coming back.

“Amazing how this neighborhood’s changed,” Wynn marveled. “The whole center of the top-end of the market is going to be here.”

Enjoy it while it lasts, sir. By about 2030, the decay will begin.

Hear Steve Friess’ full chat with Steve Wynn on his podcast at TheStripPodcast.Com, or read Steve’s daily blog at E-mail him at [email protected]

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