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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Hotels Target Valley Gateway

10 July 2006

Tourists itching for chock-a-block gambling action don't stop at Primm or Jean as they drive into Nevada along Interstate 15. But hearts jump when the Strip comes into sweeping view.

That magic moment arrives near the off-ramp for State Route 146 and St. Rose Parkway. It is the gateway into town, where the curtain is pulled back, pulses quicken and anticipation mounts.

Two developers want to use that location to bring the Strip just a bit closer to California, turning a windblown intersection in the desert into a miniature casino corridor.

Their eyes are set on parcels just a stone's throw from the off-ramp, at the corner of St. Rose Parkway and Las Vegas Boulevard South - home now to the Last Call truck stop.

Unlike the relatively low-rent hotels at Primm and Jean, this intersection is set to be developed with three resorts in the style of Station Casinos' Green Valley Ranch - a deluxe property that appeals to resort-goers and locals alike.

One of the two developers, Anthony Marnell III, is doubling down on his initial investment.

Marnell, the son of casino operator and builder Anthony Marnell II, has submitted plans to the county for a second casino on 17 acres at the northeast corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway, just north of the proposed M Resort approved last year by the Henderson City Council.

The northeast-situated resort, as yet unnamed, would offer 1,500 hotel rooms plus condominiums, shopping and other attractions. Its construction time line depends on the pace of nearby development, and may be two years off, Marnell said.

Its bigger, older sister will be the $1.8 billion M Resort project, a 1,000-room hotel that is part of a mixed-use retail and commercial development that would be built on 79 acres at the southwest corner. The first phase of the M Resort, which is planned for an additional 1,000 hotel rooms and about 2,000 condos, is expected to begin construction before the end of the year.

At the northwest corner, Southern Highlands developer Garry Goett wants to build the Southern Highlands Resort, another mixed-use development that would cover about 100 acres at a cost of more than $2 billion.

Some say Marnell and Goett had little choice but to build so far south. Parcels available for sale on the Strip are hard to find and astronomically expensive.

"The reason you're seeing land developed further south is because that's where it's available," said Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM Mirage, which owns casinos at Primm and Jean.

Marnell said he targeted the St. Rose location to capitalize on the inevitable growth of tourism in Las Vegas.

He remains unimpressed with other sites developed south of Mandalay Bay and north of that intersection in recent years, calling the mishmash collection of high rises, strip malls, apartments and ranch homes along the so-called South Strip "a developer's nightmare."

"They've got to do a lot of work before it figures out what it's going to be when it grows up," he said.

Also unappealing, he said, is the several-mile gap between the planned interchange at Silverado Ranch Boulevard and I-15 further north and the interchange upgrade under way at Blue Diamond Road and I-15.

"As I see it, the (St. Rose location) is the only intersection on the Strip that would be viable for major Strip development," Marnell said. "It's the first entrance to the greater Las Vegas area, and it's the last stop out of the city. It's going to be one of the next great corners of Las Vegas."

Some say location isn't everything.

If proximity to California were more important, the Primm and Jean casinos would steal an even bigger share of business than they do, said Carlton Geer, director of the Global Gaming Group brokerage and consulting business at CB Richard Ellis in Las Vegas.

Geer said it will take at least five years before the intersection has the critical mass to support a large-scale resort.

Even with three resorts, the outpost won't appeal to customers who would rather be surrounded by mega-resort action, he said.

"A lot of people like to come to Las Vegas and stay where they can walk and have easy access to things around them," Geer said.

The success of the casinos in capturing tourists versus locals will depend on the resorts' quality and amenities, he said.

County planners are already calling the intersection a gateway into the casino corridor and say the projects should offer a welcoming, pedestrian-friendly atmosphere.

"The site will be extremely visible from St. Rose Parkway and Las Vegas Boulevard South as visitors and locals enter the Las Vegas Valley from the south," a Planning Department analysis says. "It is imperative that the design of the project enhance the area."

The current design bar is set by the truck stop, which could be the only casualty of development in what's still considered the boondocks of the Las Vegas Valley.