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Laura Carroll

Las Vegas Convention Center set for $2.5 billion upgrade

27 February 2013

LAS VEGAS -- A $2.5 billion project to re-create the Las Vegas Convention Center and the surrounding area was given the green light Tuesday.

The first phase of the Las Vegas Global Business District, under way through 2014, is estimated to cost $150 million, or all bond revenue the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has available.

The remainder of the project cost isn't funded.

The project - previously called the Las Vegas Convention Center District Improvement Plan - calls for aesthetic improvements, technological enhancements, a World Trade Center and overall Las Vegas branding in the areas leading up to and including the Las Vegas Convention Center at 3150 Paradise Road.

Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the authority, called Tuesday's authority board meeting a defining moment as he presented his vision in front of a standing-room-only crowd.

"We are at a crossroads," Ralenkotter told the board. "It's not just about expanding and renovating this building."

Ralenkotter called a simple renovation "yesterday's discussion" and explained that the competitiveness of today's tourism and convention industry demands the need for large-scale change.

In response to the plans, board member and Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross said, "Rossi, this is 'go big or go home,' I see."

Not one to back down, Ralenkotter responded, "Well, I'm not going home."

The authority's main agenda is to, as Ralenkotter put it, "fill rooms and put heads in beds," but with the stakes as high as they are - tourism is expected to have a $41 billion economic impact on the local economy in 2013 - a certain level of sophistication is needed.

The tourism authority's quest is to increase Las Vegas' international visitation to 30 percent by 2022 from its current share of 16 percent - or its newest goal of hitting 40.1 million visitors by the end of this year.

Ralenkotter said phase one, still in planning, could include land acquisitions and contractor bids for actual construction. The project could take a decade to complete as contractors must work around existing conventions and meetings.

Each step in the process must be approved by the 14-member authority board.

"We want to make this as transparent as possible," Ralenkotter said.

The board last attempted an expansion in 2005 but shelved it when the recession hit.

Economic recovery, though slow, has brought the project back to life. For the first half of 2013, operating revenues are up 1.8 percent over last year, to $120.8 million.

Ralenkotter said a private entity may build the World Trade Center and lease it to the convention authority. If so, construction could start in 24 months.

Board members Ross and Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen, among others, urged Ralenkotter to use local construction workers, and representatives of the Black Business Council asked Ralenkotter to ensure there's minority participation.

Darren Enns, secretary and treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, said, "This is the type of project that could turn us around completely."

If finished as envisioned, the new convention center will be fully updated so that visitors can seamlessly connect their wireless devices.

Full-service restaurants will be interspersed with quick-service eateries, while green space outside, shops and a wellness center will offer recreation.

The Joe W. Brown Drive entrance will be made to match the front entrance; iconic Las Vegas signs will be featured inside and outside the main building; and a transportation hub will offer easy access by taxis, limos, buses and - maybe someday - a high-speed train.

Ralenkotter said he envisions a bustling Convention Center Drive lined with shops and restaurants leading up to the convention hall.

"I think this makes a lot of sense and what a legacy to leave behind," said Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly. "I'm definitely in full support of it."

After the meeting, Ralenkotter continued his positive message.

"I feel very excited because this is going to take Las Vegas to the next level. It really is the bold statement that we need to make about where we want to be in 2025 and 2030," he said.

From here, the convention authority plans to look at short-term remodel options, conduct land assessments and compile an outlook on future financing.