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Joan Whitely

Harrah's: Tower open, safe

5 October 2007

and Arnold Knightly

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Harrah's Entertainment said Wednesday that the Rio's Ipanema Tower is open, doing business without any imminent danger to customers.

But upstairs in the Ipanema, county building officials are investigating whether the company remodeled 17 floors in the tower, mostly in 2005, without obtaining proper permits or safety inspections.

Clark County Development Services opened its investigation after prodding from an extensive Review-Journal examination of allegations, made by remodeling workers, that safety had been compromised. Last week, the county department issued six notices of violation to Harrah's involving floors three through 19 of the Ipanema Tower.

Some local and state leaders have expressed concern the community's reputation as a tourist destination might suffer because of the negative publicity sparked by the Rio.

"We have the most stringent building code in the world, and we need to make sure it's enforced to the 'T.' Tourism is very important to our economy, and people need to come here and feel safe," said Rory Reid, chairman of Clark County commissioners. "Let the chips fall where they fall."

But many Rio patrons appeared nonchalant on Wednesday, a day after the county's investigation became public. Interviewed near the elevators to the Ipanema Tower, several guests said they had not heard about the hotel's code violations.

Currently, 12 guest rooms at the Rio -- six each on the tower's 18th and 19th floors -- are closed for assessment purposes. Harrah's has hired a contractor to open walls and do the testing while a county inspector is present as a witness, several county officials said. The tower has 1,448 rooms, according to Harrah's.

Some evidence already has been found that faulty remodeling took place, Phil Rosenquist, assistant county manager, said late Wednesday. Ron Lynn, director of Development Services, was out of town.

"We have seen evidence there are cores (holes drilled) through the concrete that have not been appropriately sealed. We don't know how many yet," Rosenquist said.

He was referring to holes drilled in a slab that serves as floor and ceiling between two stories of a building. The holes allow plumbing, electrical wiring or other utilities to pass between stories. To prevent smoke spread in a fire, such holes need to be closed off by an approved method.

The 12 rooms will be closed for three to five days, estimated Jan Jones, Harrah's senior vice president of communications and government relations. "We're working with the county to rectify any possible issues at the Rio," she said. "It is our practice -- and the public should be assured -- to be in full compliance with permits and inspections."

"Definitely," Rosenquist said, when asked whether any building permit will be needed once the initial group of guest rooms has been fully opened to view the extent of work done since the tower's original construction. The Ipanema was built in phases between 1989 and 1995.

After the work is visible, Development Services personnel will assess the next steps for Harrah's to take.

"Once it becomes clear what was done, and what needs to be done to remediate things, that is going to define the scope of the building permit that is going to be pulled," Rosenquist said.

Harrah's will make additional rooms available for inspection as the county requests, Jones said.

"Before it's done, we will be in every room in that tower," Rosenquist predicted.

The current plan, Rosenquist said, is for the county to focus first on the tower's upper floors. Workers had told the Review-Journal that the 19th floor had been entirely gutted of its guest rooms as part of the remodeling, with the central guest corridor's walls as the only original interior walls left standing.

"It does look like, up to this point, the extent of work done -- in terms of plumbing and electrical and wall work -- was broadest on the 19th floor. Which also affects (floor) 18, because of the penetrations" through the concrete slab that separates the two floors, the assistant county manager said.

Once the upper floors are evaluated, the county will proceed to lower floors. "We don't believe we have that level of (safety) issues below 18," he added.

Rosenquist said Harrah's will pay, as every party doing remodeling would, the fees associated with submitting plans to the county, having them reviewed and approved, and then undergoing inspections.

The company has the option of reimbursing the county for overtime should it desire to have inspectors available outside normal business hours. That option is standard Development Services policy, Rosenquist said.

Asked whether Harrah's would pay any penalties, by virtue of its high corporate profile and lack of permits for an apparently extensive remodeling project, Rosenquist said the county's "whole focus is code compliance without being punitive."

Harrah's Entertainment is the world's largest gaming enterprise, with operations in several countries. Locally it owns Bally's, Bill's, Caesars Palace, Flamingo, Harrah's Las Vegas, Imperial Palace and Paris Las Vegas.

Remodeling projects are taking place at Caesars Palace, the Flamingo and Harrah's, but Jones discounted any possibility that problems might exist in them. "The company is always concerned that we're following proper policy," she said. "That is something we review on an ongoing basis."

But some of Harrah's employees, named by Rio remodeling workers as supervisors in that project, are now personnel at Roman Empire Development, a locally based subsidiary wholly owned by Harrah's. Formed in late 2006, Roman Empire Development's specialty is hotel remodeling.

Dennis Neilander, chairman of the state Gaming Control Board, said the Rio situation does not appear to pose any gaming regulatory issues.

"The only way it would rise to a level to where we'd look at it was if there was some kind of willful misconduct," he said, adding that the control board will consider the results of the county's Rio investigation. Development Services has promised to share the results of its investigation in a public written report.

Special Projects reporter Alan Maimon contributed to this story.

Harrah's: Tower open, safe is republished from