Vegas bets city on taste transplant

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The Independent Online
STEVE WYNN once said that the only way he intended to make money from a casino was by owning one. Thirty years on, he has become the uncrowned king of the Las Vegas gaming industry, operator of not just one, but a whole chain of casinos from southern Nevada to Atlantic City.

But that, it seems, is not enough for Mr Wynn and his high-rolling ambition. Last week saw the grand, much-trumpeted opening of his latest resort on the Vegas Strip, a $1.7bn extravaganza by the name of Bellagio, with which he hopes to achieve nothing less than the transformation of his adoptive city from a place of tacky, gaudy pleasures to a pinnacle of culture and taste.

Taste? In Vegas? "I wanted Bellagio to represent the softer side of the human soul," Mr Wynn says. In other words: an end to the gangster- tinged image of sin in the desert, and its replacement with "sophisticated elegance and beauty".

The result is a Italian-inspired hotel in pale yellow, 36 storeys high, with dancing fountains amid Tuscan gardens, painted hand-blown glass adorning the ceiling of its atrium, shopping courtesy of Chanel and Armani and restaurants serving food cooked by the best chefs from New York, Boston and San Francisco.

On top of that, Mr Wynn has assembled Las Vegas's first serious art gallery out of his private collection of Impressionist and 20th-century masters, Matisses, Van Goghs and Picassos.

The gambling is still the centrepiece, of course, but the casino has higher ceilings and better lighting than its competitors, not to mention custom-made furniture right down to the leather covers on its slot-machine stools.

To those who know Vegas as a somewhat downmarket tourist destination of cheap 24-hour living, plentiful food and over-the-top brash neon lights, it looks at first glance as though Mr Wynn has gone utterly mad.

The kind of people who would stay in a hotel like the Bellagio - where one of the 3,000-odd rooms costs anything from $150 to $500 a night - are not the kind of people who come in large numbers to a place like Las Vegas.

Or are they? Mr Wynn may be the first to inaugurate an upscale new resort, but he is hardly alone. Right across from the Bellagio, a replica of the Eiffel Tower is being built - centrepiece of the soon to be opened chi-chi Paris hotel. Up the street is an emerging vision of Venice, courtesy of Las Vegas Sands Inc, which will include a replica Bridge of Sighs spanning the eight-lane Strip.

What is happening is one of Las Vegas's periodic attempts to surpass its own considerable excesses. After half a century of hype and high-stakes investment, Bugsy Siegel's original Flamingo Hotel pales next to the likes of New York New York - complete with lifesize replica of the Statue of Liberty - or the Luxor, a huge black pyramid with lasers that shoot up into the night sky.

The problem that Mr Wynn and his competitors face, though, is some serious doubt about the financial viability of their latest venture. By 2000, Vegas will have added more than 20,000 hotel rooms to its existing 106,000 - and this at a time when occupancy is going down, not up. Room rates, particularly at the high end, are already being slashed mid-week and occupancy is at its lowest levels for six years.

Beyond that, the Asian economic crisis has scared away many of the international high-end gamblers - the sort who stay at the expense of the casino in return for six- or seven-figure flutters at the table.

The city is looking largely to Mr Wynn and his legendary powers of publicity to revive its fortunes. When the first big Wynn resort, the fantasy-themed Mirage, opened its doors in 1989, it attracted so much media oohing and aahing that it caused a general surge in tourism in Las Vegas.

Anticipation of the Bellagio's opening has been expertly managed for years - right from the moment when Mr Wynn blew up the old Dunes country club on the site in 1993 as a grandiose symbol of dynamic corporate muscle taking over from the old Mafia-riddled Vegas establishment.

Several days of opening festivities have included fireworks, sound and light shows and endless parties, many of them thrown to impress a heavy media presence. The Bellagio's supposed class turns out to be little more than a ritzier version of the same old Vegas.