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Gaming Guru

Jeff Simpson

Drought Won't Change Water Park Plans

22 January 2004

LAS VEGAS -- Don't bet on the drought prompting Las Vegas casino developers to quit building water-themed resorts, industry experts said Wednesday.

Water is crucial to the atmosphere that tourists crave, and Bellagio's lake and fountains, The Venetian's canal and Treasure Island's Buccaneer Bay are among the water attractions that bring visitors to the Strip, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy said.

With Paul Lowden's Archon Corp. slated today to present plans for its Palace of the Sea water-themed megaresort to the Clark County Planning Commission, and the water-intensive Wynn Las Vegas set to open next year, some observers wonder whether all the water features send the wrong message and whether developers should curtail their use.

"The idea that you have ostentatious displays like Bellagio's fountains or some lake on the Strip when people can't wash their own cars in their driveways or water their lawns is kind of outrageous," University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor Ted Jelen said. "Las Vegas has a culture of excess, but there soon won't be enough water to go around."

But Mulroy and Strip developers Steve Wynn and Phil Ruffin said it's too simplistic to criticize water displays because they might appear to be wasteful.

Water used in hotel bathrooms accounts for the lion's share of all water used on the Strip, but that water is consumed and then returned in the form of waste water and there's relatively little evaporative loss.

Mulroy said cooling towers for hotels' air-conditioning systems account for the bulk of the water that evaporates on the Strip, far more than the water that evaporates from the water features, she said.

The Strip's resorts use only 7 percent of the water delivered by the district, Mulroy said; the district delivers more than 70 percent of the water used by Southern Nevada governments and residents.

"Go to any resort in Arizona or California or anywhere and you'll find a water feature," Mulroy said, noting that the ongoing Western drought hasn't prompted California to shut down Disneyland's water features.

Further, citizens in other major metropolitan areas don't question the use of water by their leading industries, Mulroy noted, citing the intensive use of water by computer chip manufacturers in Silicon Valley as an example.

The resort industry is even more vital to Southern Nevada's economy, she said.

"What people in Las Vegas don't understand is that it's not slots and gaming that brings people to Las Vegas," Mulroy said. "It's the overall Las Vegas experience, and water features are part of that. People want to escape reality, and we market illusion."

Wynn Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn said vacationers want water features.

"People want an emotional experience they can't get every day," Wynn said. "They want to be enveloped in an idyllic, romantic, beautiful environment, and you really can't do anything beautiful without the water."

Wynn said his company's studies show that people respond to water and to the plants and landscaping that water allows.

"Water is a great amenity," agreed New Frontier owner Phil Ruffin, who is now working on plans with Donald Trump to redevelop the property across the Strip from Wynn Las Vegas. "People like to look at water, people like to splash around in it. They just seem to like it."

Ruffin's and Trump's plans for the site aren't finalized, but it probably will have a water feature. Ruffin last year canceled plans to build a San Francisco-themed megaresort on the site, a project that would have included a lot of water features.

Both Wynn and Ruffin, who own the water rights for their properties, argue that they are using the water on their property productively and not being wasteful.

Wynn's property will separate grey water, the used water from sinks and showers, and treat it and recycle it. Black water, the used water in the property's toilets, is sent for sewage treatment.

Wynn Las Vegas' plans include a small lagoon with several pools of water surrounding the project's mountain, its signature design element.

The property's first production show also will extensively utilize water, and Wynn's new golf course will have plenty of decorative water hazards, although he said the new course will use less water than the old Desert Inn course.

Wynn predicts future developers will continue to use water to attract customers.

"Water is integral to the presentation of romance," Wynn said. "If the developer has the (water) rights and is conservation-minded, he's going to go with water. Water evokes the common memory of Paradise, and that's what we seek to tap into. There's ways to have nice water features and still conserve."

Mandalay Resort Group spokesman John Marz said his company recently began advertising its water conservation because the company's executives believed the public didn't understand Mandalay's efforts.

"We don't waste water, but the community doesn't know that," Marz said.

Mandalay's efforts include replacing sod with drought-tolerant landscaping, converting watering sprayers to bubblers and changing the timing on Mandalay Bay's water features to conserve use.

In April, Archon owner Paul Lowden received county approval to redevelop the 27-acre Wet 'n Wild site at 2601 Las Vegas Boulevard.

County officials then approved a 50-story hotel and an observation wheel, next to a man-made lake. The project, estimated at $650 million at the time, was to include 3,250 hotel rooms and timeshare units.

Another 78 suites would be located in boats moored on the property's lake.

The planning commission today is slated to consider Archon's revised plan for the property. The number of rooms was reduced to 3,002, and the hotel's height was increased to 611 feet from 600 feet.

"The theme of the resort is based on mariner life," Palace by the Sea's project description filed with the county notes. "The pedestrian tourist will access the site by walking across the pier of the marina where yachts are anchored on a proposed water feature, with the yachts also serving as suites located in the west part of the property fronting on Las Vegas Boulevard South. ... The casino area elevations convey the sense of sails with a similar look of the Sydney Opera House."

The county's planning staff recommended the county approve the changes Lowden has made to his plan to redevelop the property.

Archon executives did not return phone messages Wednesday.