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Howard Stutz

How far has Vegas fallen? $300 million buys you admiration

7 May 2012

We've fallen to a new low, it seems.

A few years ago, $300 million was the cost of remodeling a lounge in Las Vegas. Pocket change in a city binging on multibillion-dollar resort-hotel-casino projects.

Today, $300 million buys you an entire hotel-casino - and the unbridled admiration of the state's most powerful politicians.

Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Harry Reid last week met the announcement that SBE Entertainment Group, LLC and Stockbridge Real Estate had secured $300 million to turn the shuttered Sahara into SLS Las Vegas with pointed praise. In statements to SBE, the pair formed a bipartisan cheering section that celebrated the potential jobs and economic boost from the project.

SLS Las Vegas, it was said, could also be the start of the next Las Vegas building boom - albeit on a much smaller scale than we enjoyed for the past 20 years. Call it the city's "Megaresort Gives Way to the Fixer-Upper" era.

There's nothing wrong with that. If the Sahara can be transformed from a Moroccan-themed Rat Pack-era Strip resort into a "boutique" 1,600-room luxury hotel with Southern California-style nightlife amenities, other worn-down hotel-casinos could also be revived.

SBE Entertainment Chief Executive Officer Sam Nazarian thinks he might be on to something.

He hopes his Strip neighbors follow suit, but with more of a financial commitment than just the cost to change out the furnishings.

"You can't just put lipstick on a pig," Nazarian said. "We need to see some serious image making over the next 10 years."

Some Las Vegas old-timers might view Nazarian, 36, as a brash Hollywood outsider. After all, the one-time movie producer who played himself on the HBO's "Entourage" was never licensed to operate the Sahara's casino after he engineered a deal to buy the aging property in 2007. He hired a management firm.

Four years later, SBE closed the 59-year-old Sahara, saying it was no longer economically viable to keep the place open. On the way out, Nazarian taped a signed, handwritten note to the front doors saying, "Be back soon!"

He'll always be criticized for closing the historic Sahara, but in the end Nazarian may have the last laugh.

From the beginning, Nazarian planned to remodel the Sahara, not level it and start over. It's the same course SBE followed for the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, The Redbury in Hollywood and the SLS Hotel in Miami's South Beach. The Las Vegas economy just didn't cooperate with Nazarian's plans.

Now, with $300 million in financing raised by JP Morgan Securities - the Strip's first construction financing in several years - Nazarian will move forward with what he envisioned before the market tanked.

With two years to build, SBE can add customer contacts to its potential SLS Las Vegas client database. The company's customer loyalty program rewards guests through SBE's nationwide collection of nightclubs, restaurants and hotels, including SLS brands in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami.

"Today's Rat Pack lives and plays at our properties," said Nazarian, who marked his entry to the Strip with the New Year's Eve opening of the SBE-owned Hyde Lounge, which occupies a 10,000-square-foot center stage at the Bellagio.

If Nazarian is correct, his northern Strip neighbors could jump on board.

Both the MGM Resorts International-owned Circus Circus and the Riviera could see a boost in business because of SLS's marketing.

"The northern end of the Strip is the future of Las Vegas," Nazarian said.

A future clouded by empty dirt and never-finished eyesores.

The empty lot across the Strip from SLS Las Vegas is owned by MGM Resorts. Plans for a joint venture there with the operators of Atlantis on Paradise Island in the Bahamas have long been shelved. The site of the former Wet 'n Wild water park remains in limbo.

Meanwhile, Carl Icahn has done nothing with the Fontainebleau, which he bought out of bankruptcy for $150 million in January 2010. Construction was halted on what was to be a $3 billion resort in April 2009. Unused furnishings have been sold, and the building's blue-glass facade is becoming gap-toothed as windows have seemingly fallen out with the passage of time.

There's some activity at the site, however - Nazarian took over the Fontainebleau's sales office for use during the SLS Las Vegas construction.

Boyd Gaming Corp., meanwhile, has said nothing about any plans it might have for the nearby Echelon site, which shut down construction nearly four years ago.

For now, it appears the modest investment in the SLS Las Vegas deserves the attention it's getting.