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LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The idea of owning a Las Vegas casino has been a 20-year fascination for Donald Trump. But in the end, the New York real estate developer decided to stick with what he knows best.
After a brief ceremony Tuesday to launch construction of the $500 million Trump International Hotel & Tower, Trump said the 1,282-unit, 64-story project behind the New Frontier fits into his current construction portfolio, which includes residential projects in New York City and Florida, a 92-story tower in Chicago and a golf course and residential development outside of Los Angeles.
"I'm involved with nine buildings right now, but what I do better than anybody else is to build luxury, luxury, super luxury apartments," Trump said. "We have a special site and we're going to be doing an amazing job that is going to be special for Las Vegas."
Trump said construction on the sold-out tower, which includes studio and one-bedroom units as well as one-, two- and three-bedroom suites, should begin by the end of the summer and last 24 months to 30 months.
In addition, Trump announced plans for an identical second tower for which prices will be 35 percent higher than the original $600,000 to $6 million range. Sales on that tower, he said, will begin by the end of the year.
Tuesday's event gave Trump the image he wanted to present -- a developer with his eyes firmly set on the booming Las Vegas luxury condominium market. Some 60 residential high-rises encompassing more than 37,000 units have been proposed for Las Vegas over the past few years.
"I guess in real estate nothing really surprises me," Trump said. "I'm selling one-bedroom apartments in Manhattan for $3 million, so I really shouldn't be surprised. Las Vegas is a special place."
What was billed as a groundbreaking ceremony was really a ribbon-cutting and photo opportunity. It took place on a specially built stage in the New Frontier parking lot that featured Trump; his business partner, New Frontier owner Phil Ruffin; and two showgirls.
About 300 state and local government representatives, reigning Miss USA Chelsea Cooley, members of the Las Vegas business community and the Trump Tower development team watched the festivities in the 100-plus-degree heat. Trump's star power was evident.
"I'm thrilled Oscar couldn't be here because it gave me a chance to be part of something special," said Carolyn Goodman, the wife of Mayor Oscar Goodman, who represented her husband while he directed the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority meeting.
Local media covering the event were joined by syndicated tabloid television shows such as Access Hollywood and Extra.
"We're lucky," Trump told his sweltering guests. "This was supposed to be at 2 in the afternoon and by accident, we chose 10 in the morning."
The festivities also attracted about 100 onlookers from outside the cordoned-off area. New Frontier guests lined the walkway outside the hotel while about Strip visitors lined an area along Fashion Show Drive, all hoping to catch of glimpse of Trump, who has become a reality television star through his NBC television series "The Apprentice."
"We read about it in the paper, so we just decided to come by and have a look at Trump," said Joe Hernandez, mayor pro tem of San Benito, Texas, a city outside Brownsville with a population of 28,000. "Maybe we can convince him to build the same thing in our community."
Trump, who entered the ceremony with Wynn Resorts Ltd. Chairman Steve Wynn, said he felt like a movie star.
"Somebody said to me (the event) felt like the Academy Awards," Trump said. "They had never seen an opening with that many television cameras."
Trump enjoyed the spotlight and he knows owning a Las Vegas casino could bring additional attention. But for now, gaming in Las Vegas isn't in the cards.
"I'm interested, and this is the city where I would love to do that," said Trump, who operates three casinos in Atlantic City and riverboat casino in Indiana. He recently sold his management contract for an American Indian casino in Palm Springs, Calif.
However, a recent bankruptcy reorganization of his gaming holdings has curtailed any development plans.
"We just did an amazing thing and we cut out hundreds of millions in debt, we reduced our interest rate by a lot and we reduced our interest payments by $102 million," Trump said.
Ruffin, who is a 50 percent partner in the Trump International with Trump, said construction of the high-rise may spur redevelopment of the aging New Frontier site, something he's been planning since 1998.
Ruffin said he is developing a master plan and theme for a 3,500 hotel-casino to be built in place of the New Frontier.
"The Frontier will probably come down sometime next year, but it's doing so well and I hate like hell to close it," Ruffin said. "The condos add a lot of panache and class to the site. It will help with what we want to do with the Frontier."
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