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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Looking In On: Gaming

14 June 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Cosmopolitan Resort developer Ian Bruce Eichner had a New York moment a few months ago when he sued his neighbors, the Jockey Club condominiums, for holding up his $2 billion, two-tower Strip resort at Harmon Avenue.

The Brooklynite and former district attorney sued for breach of contract, claiming the Jockey Club wouldn't sign off on several agreements struck between the abutting properties.

One agreement concerned precious parking. The Cosmopolitan agreed to provide 358 parking spaces in its underground garage for Jockey Club owners, and to ferry them between the temporary parking at the Aladdin while the resort - built on the Jockey Club's former parking lot next door - is under construction.

An agreement to renovate the Jockey Club's 1970s-era fire-safety system led to the biggest inconvenience for the older building because the Cosmopolitan would be blocking some of its neighbor's fire exits.

Eichner said he filed suit because the Jockey Club couldn't agree on a workable schedule for renovation at the aging property. The upgrade is now occurring floor by floor and requiring the evacuation of certain rooms during the process. He dropped the suit within days after successfully negotiating a work schedule.

As Strip land is bought up and developers shoehorn hotels onto ever-smaller parcels, more complaints - and resolutions - are likely to arise.

"You have the normal tension that exists with ¦ a gargantuan project that's going to be ongoing for the better part of three years and at the end of the day has got to be a major inconvenience to a small building next door," said Eichner, who has built condos in New York and Miami.

The Cosmopolitan, on track to open by early 2009, may be the most New York-like project in town because many of its architectural features have the trappings of Manhattan.

The complex design and construction process, involving a five-story underground parking garage and another five stories of attractions enclosed by glass above the Strip, is "driving everyone crazy," he said.

Which is another of those Manhattan trappings.

How is he coping? "Taking a lot of Tylenol," he said.

• • •

Frank Vignola seems surrounded by good luck.

Three times a famed Megabucks slot machine has hit the top jackpot on his watch.

Vignola, general manager of the Cannery in North Las Vegas, was on hand last week when a 64-year-old woman won $20.5 million on a Megabucks slot near the casino's entrance.

Last year 92-year-old World War II veteran Elmer Sherwin won more than $21 million at the adjacent Megabucks machine. Sherwin previously won a top Megabucks jackpot in 1989 at the Mirage - a feat oddsmakers would equate to being twice struck by lightning.

Vignola said it's no less miraculous that he has witnessed three such hits. The first happened during his tenure at the Oasis in Mesquite.

For a town that likes to celebrate long shots, the Cannery is appropriately installing a plaque above the machines to commemorate the winners. It's not known whether it will note the millions-to-one odds that two adjacent machines will hit one after the other.

"It's a life-changing experience," Vignola said .

"Rub my head for good luck," he joked.

• • •

When Boyd Gaming announced recent plans to purchase a jai alai stadium in southern Florida, the deal brought to mind some comments made by competitor Station Casinos not very long ago.

Station executives said the company passed up Florida because the state's proposed slot tax - at more than 50 percent - is too high, and potential returns are too low.

But then, Station is sitting in fat city - boasting at least five sites of undeveloped casino land ready and waiting in Las Vegas. Boyd, which is Station's No. 2 locals competitor, owns one casino-zoned parcel in North Las Vegas that is years away from development. So Florida doesn't seem so unattractive.

While Station was aggressively buying up land across the valley in the 1990s and catching flack for it, Boyd was doing what most other gaming companies did - expanding into other states. While Boyd's diversified strategy has paid off, so has Station's - giving the company a dominant position in one of the country's fastest growing markets.

Boyd, now in six states, is the first major Las Vegas gaming company to make the jump to Florida since the state legalized slots at certain racetracks and jai alai stadiums. The company believes the state's tax rate on slots is justified by the lack of competitors.

"We know this going in and that's the price of doing business here," Boyd spokesman Rob Stillwell said. "We believe we can be successful in spite of the very aggressive tax rate."