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Howard Stutz

CityCenter's long-awaited centerpiece opens

18 December 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Wednesday was all about celebrating the opening of CityCenter's centerpiece, but it was also a time for putting the $8.4 billion project into perspective.

During an hourlong ceremony in the porte-cochere of the 61-story, glass and steel Aria, MGM Mirage officials and others associated with CityCenter said the 18 million-square-foot development would transform Las Vegas.

"This isn't just another opening," MGM Mirage Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jim Murren said. "This is a game-changer."

About 400 media and invited guests attended the ceremony, held next to the Lumia fountain and the curved wall Focus, two of CityCenter's water features designed by WET.

Los Angeles residents Eric Whitaker and Jeff Archibald planned their Las Vegas trip to coincide with the opening of Aria. They sat down at a Crazy 4 Poker table soon after entering.

"It was the first game we found," Whitaker said.

Cindy and Ken Denison of Wisconsin were staying at Paris on their annual Las Vegas trip when they found out about the Aria opening.

"This made it more special," Ken Denison said as they sat side by side at slot machines.

Another 5,000 VIPs attended an earlier celebration inside the 4,004-room hotel-casino starting at 7:30 p.m.

The public got its first look at Aria about midnight after a fireworks display atop the hotel.

The crowd swelled to a few hundred by the time the fireworks show began at 11 p.m. An hour before the fireworks, fewer than 100 people had gathered at two barriers. Traffic on the Strip was flowing easily.

Inside the party, executives from rival casino companies, elected leaders and friends and family of MGM Mirage officials sampled food from Aria's 11 restaurants and toured the building. About 1,000 guests were treated to a preview of "Viva Elvis" by Cirque du Soleil.

"It's like nothing we've ever seen," said Golden Gate President Mark Brandenburg, a native Las Vegan who said his downtown casino would fit nicely inside Aria's main lobby.

"This is something Las Vegas needs right now," Brandenburg said. "We're ready for something like this."

Outside, the public was late to gather.

Kevin Stewart, who has lived in Las Vegas for five years, took a spot in the front of the line near the Strip-side valet parking.

He probably didn't need to show up so early.

One of only a dozen curious onlookers by 8 p.m., Stewart said he comes to the Strip resort opening to chase the opening-day Megabucks slot jackpot myth.

"Superstition says Megabucks will be hit in the first three days," Stewart said. "Me and a couple friends have built a nice bankroll for this night."

On the west side of Aria, about six people mingled by the barrier awaiting the opening.

Another person awaiting some action was cabdriver Dan Mann. Mann was busy passing the time juggling three pins to tunes of Elvis Presley waiting for customers to come from Vdara.

During the morning celebration, Murren, fellow MGM Mirage executives and officials from CityCenter joint venture partner Dubai World, rang the closing bell for the New York Stock Exchange at 1 p.m. from Mandarin Terrace, a walkway between Mandarin Oriental and Aria.

Murren rang the bell used for championship boxing matches at the MGM Grand Garden, and the event was broadcast live on CNBC and other financial networks.

"I've been waiting to say this for over five years: Welcome to CityCenter," Murren said.

Those involved in CityCenter's five-year building process said they were happy to see Aria unveiled.

Architect Cesar Pelli, founder of the New Haven, Conn.-based Pelli Clarke Pelli firm that designed Aria, said the hotel-casino's standards will be hard to match.

"This is really 21st century Las Vegas," he said. "It was a very complex and very difficult task."

Aria has a 150,000-square-foot casino, the only gaming inside the 67-acre CityCenter complex, which includes two nongaming hotels, Vdara and the ultra luxury Mandarin Oriental. Also, CityCenter has high-rise residential and 500,000 square feet of meeting and convention space.

Aria President Bill McBeath said the hotel-casino was built to accommodate the entire complex of nearly 7,000 hotel rooms and condominiums.

"Las Vegas didn't need five more casino hotels," McBeath said. "Aria was designed to absorb all the other capacity around it plus the circulation in and out of CityCenter."

Aria will become MGM Mirage's 10th casino on Strip, which includes the company's flagship Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and The Mirage.

Las Vegas was the only city in the world that could house CityCenter, said JF Finn III, the managing director of Gensler, which oversaw the seven architectural firms brought in to design CityCenter.

The company, which has worked on projects worldwide, said CityCenter might already be one of the five top developments in the world.

"It is truly groundbreaking in every aspect of the word," Finn said. "Las Vegas has international cache, which immediately places CityCenter on a worldwide stage."

Finn said the "cowboy mentality" in Las Vegas helped the project get completed in five years time, something unheard of for a development of CityCenter's magnitude in the architectural community.

"I have designs that take five years," Finn said. "The mentality here was to do it and there is a great spirit here in that sense. Las Vegas gets it done like no other place in the world."

The architects who designed CityCenter's elements all have worldwide recognition.

Finn likened the group to an all-star team lineup featuring members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"These guys take on serious assignments and that's a huge validation for this project," Finn said. "Everyone is proud to see what was accomplished."

CityCenter received six Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certifications from the U.S. Green Building Council, including for Aria's hotel tower and convention area. Rick Fedrizzi, the president and CEO of the council, was hopeful CityCenter and Aria would inspire more environmentally friendly design in Las Vegas.

"This is transforming development," Fedrizzi said.

CityCenter's long-awaited centerpiece opens is republished from