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Chris Jones

Downtown Plan Meets Mostly Silence

12 May 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Proponents of downtown redevelopment are counting on new hotel-casinos to spice up an entertainment district proposed for Las Vegas' 61-acre Union Park site.

But if local gaming companies' tepid early responses are an accurate indicator, those hoping for Striplike gaming halls in the shadows of Fremont Street are in for a tough sell.

As city leaders prepare for Wednesday's vote on downtown's latest master plan, an unresolved concern is which, if any, gaming operators would invest in an area that's long struggled to compete with the Strip's newer, flashier resorts.

"This could be a jackpot" for casinos, said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, whose civic interests convey a natural bias favoring the prospects of Union Park, a rail yard west of Main Street near Grand Central Parkway.

Goodman said Tuesday he'd like the industry's largest companies to vie for Union Park's three designated hotel-casino sites, which would be surrounded by 3,600 residential units, high-rise offices and stores.

So far, however, only one operator contacted by the Review-Journal was willing to publicly express interest in the area.

Tamares Group, a privately held international investment company, is open to the city's plan to extend the Fremont Street Experience canopy into Union Park, a step that would require demolition or reconfiguration of the Plaza's north tower.

But managing director Michael Treanor said Thursday that Tamares has not committed to such a deal, nor has it agreed to a new city hall site that would be built on what is now a parking lot Tamares owns near Main and Lewis Avenue.

"There ought to be a situation in which we can enhance the value of our land and at the same time enhance the value of Union Park by providing for connectivity" to Fremont Street, Treanor said. "We're interested in continuing that conversation" with the city.

In exchange for such access, Tamares wants seven to 10 acres of Union Park land to build a new $500 million hotel-casino connected to the Plaza.

With or without that deal, the Plaza will be renovated or rebuilt, he added.

"We want to be part of the revitalization. We have $100-plus-million invested in downtown, and that number is only going to go up," Treanor said. "If we redevelop our property and don't provide for connectivity with Union Park, I think we'll be shorting ourselves ... and cause a huge blow to the value of Union Park."

Tamares is working on plans for the new Plaza, which Treanor said will cater toward middle-market gaming customers, a niche he believes is increasingly underserved.

The company, which also owns several smaller properties on 35 acres downtown, wants to create a Main Street entertainment district to enhance downtown offerings.

"It's got great bones," Treanor said of downtown. "It just needs a little TLC."

Other neighborhood players had less to say, however.

Boyd Gaming Corp., whose California, Fremont and Main Street Station hotel-casinos do brisk business downtown, is interested in downtown redevelopment.

Still, it hasn't studied the latest Union Park plans well enough to speculate on future projects there, spokesman Rob Stillwell said Thursday.

A representative of MTR Gaming Group, which owns Binion's Gambling Hall, said no one but Chief Operating Officer Bill Robinson could answer questions on downtown redevelopment.

Robinson was traveling Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

George Maloof, whose off-Strip Palms resort successfully lures a mix of local and out-of-town customers, said downtown is "kind of tricky" because so much is taking place elsewhere in the valley.

"If someone can come up with something really special, perhaps people will go (downtown). But it's really going to need a clear vision," Maloof said.

Maloof added he'll never underestimate Goodman, but the Palms owner believes access is a key stumbling block when luring visitors and locals downtown.

Representatives of Station Casinos and Harrah's Entertainment said their companies continually evaluate growth opportunities, though each declined to address downtown specifically.

MGM Mirage is not looking to do business downtown, though the company is "enthusiastically watching the developments of Union Park" because of the site's overall importance to the community, spokesman Alan Feldman said.

In the meantime, MGM Mirage will continue developing the 830-plus acres it owns on the Strip, most notably the $7 billion Project CityCenter now rising between Bellagio and Monte Carlo.

Las Vegas Sands Corp. will spend several billion on new resorts in Macau, and hopes Singapore's government will tab it to build a major tourist attraction in the Asian city-state.

Closer to home, The Venetian's parent company is focused on completing The Palazzo, a $1.8 billion megaresort across from Wynn Las Vegas and Treasure Island.

Beyond that, the company would not speculate on where, or if, the company would launch another Southern Nevada project, spokesman Ron Reese said.

Goodman criticized local gaming icons Steve Wynn and Michael Gaughan for selling their respective downtown Las Vegas properties rather than staying on Fremont Street and working to improve its fortunes.

Wynn's Golden Nugget was sold six years ago to MGM Grand (now MGM Mirage) as part of a $6.7 billion deal; the hotel-casino has been sold twice since, with new owner Landry's Restaurants at work on a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion.

Golden Nugget management declined comment for this story.

Wynn has since opened the $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas, and broken ground on Encore, an adjacent $1.74 billion Strip development. A third project will open in Macau later this year, with more Asian developments set to follow.

In March 2004 Gaughan sold the Plaza and three other downtown properties to Barrick Gaming Group and Tamares, which has offices in London, New York and Tel Aviv, Israel. Tamares last year assumed 100 percent ownership of Gaughan's former properties, plus two more smaller downtown hotel-casinos.

Gaughan's father, Jackie, co-founded the four properties with the late Mel Exber. As Jackie Gaughan grew older and less able to work, his son sold the family's downtown holdings, excluding the El Cortez, to focus on Coast Casinos' locals casinos throughout the valley.

Boyd bought Coast for $1.3 billion in July 2004, and Michael Gaughan has since run Coast as a Boyd subsidiary.