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Best of Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

A deluge of dust

14 March 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- When Sherie and James Johnson heard the Stardust was scheduled for demolition, the Salt Lake City couple knew they had be in Las Vegas to bid farewell to an old friend.

Fourteen years ago, the couple honeymooned at the Stardust. Off and on for about seven years on their anniversary, they returned to the hotel to celebrate, staying in the same room, 3103.

From a grassy knoll in the New Frontier's north parking lot, the Johnsons could see what remained of their favorite room and were witnesses as the 32-story shell of the hotel tower was felled by 428 pounds of dynamite shortly after 2:30 a.m. Tuesday after a four-minute fireworks display.

"I hope this doesn't mean our marriage is going to crumble as well," James Johnson joked as the couple waited along with their friends, Aime and Tom Lee, and thousands of other tourists and Las Vegas residents in the wee hours for the Stardust to be imploded.

"We had a lot of good memories at the Stardust," Sherie Johnson said. "It's kind of sad."

Boyd Gaming Corp. executive Robert Boughner had similar feelings. He oversaw the construction of the Stardust tower in 1988, which was part of a $50 million expansion of the Strip resort. It took construction crews 18 months to complete the hotel high-rise and it took less than 18 seconds for the remnant to crumble.

Boughner said company executives realized last year that the tower had to be removed to make way for the planned $4.4 billion Echelon project, a 5,000-room complex with five hotels (the 3,400-room Echelon and four smaller boutique hotels), a 140,000-square-foot casino, along with retail, convention, dining and entertainment amenities. The Echelon site is 87 acres. Groundbreaking is scheduled for mid-June; the project is expected to open in 2010.

"We looked at trying to preserve the tower and incorporate it into the project," Boughner said. "But in the end, it was much more workable to have a clean slate for the development of Echelon."

The Stardust closed in November after a 49-year run. Many of the casino's former executives, employees and three busloads of former Stardust VIP customers watched from an enclosed compound in the New Frontier parking lot as the building was imploded.

Following a fireworks display that included almost 3,000 aerial shells, a 10-second countdown to the implosion lighted up on the face of the Stardust's tower using a pyrotechnic display. The explosives then took out the support columns for both the main tower and a smaller nine-story tower that had housed guests since 1964. More than 500,000 tons of concrete and steel crashed downward.

The demolition raised a thick cloud of dust that moved across the Desert Inn Super Arterial and onto the Strip, covering buildings and causing spectators in the New Frontier parking lot to scramble for cover.

It took more than 20 minutes for the dust to dissipate and settle.

The Stardust implosion marked the first time in about a dozen casino demolitions since the early 1990s that the company that originally financed and built the tower also paid to demolish it.

Boyd Gaming Chairman Bill Boyd, who spearheaded the company's purchase of the Stardust in 1985, said he had mixed emotions about closing the Stardust. The casino gave the company its initial presence on the Strip, which will greatly be expanded by the construction of Echelon.

"I'm very emotional about this," Boyd said. "The Stardust gave us some great memories, but what we're bringing in its place will be a tremendous addition to the Strip."

Boyd's four grandsons, Taylor, Joseph, John and William, pushed the ceremonial plunger to start the fireworks display.

Company executives tried to balance the hoopla surrounding the Stardust demolition while focusing on the future unveiling of the Echelon project.

"We've given the Stardust a long goodbye," Boyd Gaming President Keith Smith said. "This is its finale."

Many spectators who found their way to the New Frontier parking lot Tuesday morning were more interested in the fast goodbye: the implosion. Other observers lined the Strip and packed neighboring casino parking garages. Wynn Las Vegas' parking garage was crowded with onlookers.

Rick West, a casino worker at the Excalibur, sat on the roof of his minivan in the New Frontier parking lot with two different cameras waiting to record the event. He originally planned to be on the roof of the Circus Circus parking garage, but decided to go where the Boyd Gaming VIP party would take place, figuring it would be the prime location.

"I've never seen one of these implosions in person, so this was a great opportunity," said West, who secured his front row location about three hours before the implosion.

Las Vegas residents Jacquline and Al Martinez arrived in the Frontier parking lot around midnight with their two children to take in the implosion. While 4-year-old Alexis slept in a car seat, her excited brother Dominick sat in a chair with his camera and awaited the fireworks. His father said Dominick, a fifth-grader at Smith Elementary, would be in class Tuesday.

The trip was worth it, Al Martinez said.

"We've seen (implosions) on TV," Al Martinez said. "Seeing it live is so much better."

Four Iowa State University students on spring break wandered from their rooms at Circus Circus and sat right at the rope line, sharing two 12-packs of Bud Lite.

Nearby, five Medford, Ore., residents, still in town after attending last weekend's NASCAR races at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, saw the implosion as free Las Vegas-style entertainment. They staked out the top of a large electrical box in the New Frontier's parking lot to witness the implosion.

"This was a nice surprise and an added bonus," said Laura O'Shea, as she shared a kiss with Aaron Pardee about an hour before the implosion. "You don't see anything like this in Medford."