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Hubble Smith

Harrah's plans Vegas retail, entertainment center

2 July 2010

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Harrah's Entertainment is revisiting a plan to develop a retail and entertainment center in a short thoroughfare that runs from the Strip to Audrie Street between the Flamingo and O'Sheas, a corporate spokeswoman said Thursday.

The center, dubbed Project Linq, would include restaurants, bars and shops along a promenade that leads to a 550-foot observation wheel in the back of the property.

Harrah's Chief Executive Officer Gary Loveman had discussed the project last year, although no time line or cost had been calculated. Harrah's has also been involved in negotiations for a private sports arena on land it acquired near Bally's and Paris Las Vegas.

"We're really aiming for a fun, entertaining, cutting-edge experience," said Marybel Batjer, Harrah's vice president of public policy and communications. "The really fun attraction is the observation wheel. It's like the London Eye or the Singapore Flyer. They're really quite spectacular. The capsule you sit in becomes its own experience, the way they're outfitted."

With nearly 150,000 hotel rooms, Las Vegas needs attractions more than accommodations to pump up visitor count. Hotel occupancy rates have dropped to 79.3 percent compared with 82.4 percent a year ago, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reported.

A retail center is probably more realistic than redeveloping Imperial Palace or Harrah's, said David G. Schwartz, director of gaming research at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"I think it ties in with their promotions like the buffet," he said. "For $35, you can go to any Harrah's buffet for 24 hours. Once they do that, they're locked into going to Harrah's three or four times in that 24 hours."

The observation wheel idea has been pitched for a half-dozen sites on or around the Strip, including the former Wet 'n Wild water park, the Rio and the New Frontier.

Schwartz compares it to the Stratosphere tower thrill rides. Las Vegas residents may not see them as a big draw, but thousands of tourists and international visitors enjoy the experience, he said.

"Anybody who wants to spend money in Las Vegas is going to be popular, especially with construction," Schwartz said.

Batjer estimated the project will create 1,300 jobs when construction begins in 2011, plus another 2,000 permanent jobs once the center is open.

It will have about 20 restaurants and bars taking up 60 percent to 70 percent of the leasable space, plus 20 individual retailers, some of them entering the Las Vegas market for the first time, Batjer said.

Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce President Matthew Crosson said the Harrah's project would be terrific for Las Vegas both in the short term and the long term.

"It'll bring jobs as it's built and it'll bring more tourists and families to Las Vegas. It's a very positive development and it comes at exactly the right time," he said.

Loveman told Bloomberg News the city doesn't need any more hotel rooms or casinos.

"We have a bunch of assets collected around one central place and some people are already there because they're residents there, but a lot of people aren't, so we need something that draws them into our neighborhood," Loveman said.

Harrah's is able to pursue retail development and other growth opportunities with $3 billion in cash and available credit and more than $5 billion in debt that averted default, Bloomberg News reported.

The gaming corporation acquired Planet Hollywood Resort in February and has sought bids this year on the Rio, which it bought for $880 million in 1998.
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