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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Montreux to Replace the New Frontier

11 April 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- As other casino operators announce plans to redevelop their older properties, New Frontier owner Phil Ruffin hasn't had a lot to say about his long-awaited plans for his aging Strip hotel.

Ruffin says he's not sitting on his hands.

The name of his planned megaresort will be Montreux, after the Swiss resort with a famous annual jazz festival.

Ruffin says he is close to announcing a financing package.

"These things take time," Ruffin said. "It can take nine months to do an architectural plan and five months to come up with parking plans."

"I'm trying to do something nobody's ever done before, which is develop a resort without any help or partners. It's very hard to do," he said.

To capitalize on the resort's brand, Ruffin said he's also working on plans to bring the internationally known Montreux Jazz Festival to the new property, which is scheduled to break ground sometime next year and open by 2010.

The New Frontier would be closed and demolished before ground is broken on the Montreux.

The new hotel would have about 2,750 rooms, including about 750 suites, and cater to customers who patronize high-end properties such as the Mirage or Paris Las Vegas, Ruffin said.

Perhaps the most-talked about feature would be an "observation wheel" that would be positioned in front of the property and facing the Strip.

Ruffin said the wheel, tentatively called the "Las Vegas Eye," is modeled after the famed London Eye. It would enable tourists to take pictures of the Strip from slow-moving, temperature-controlled cabins that rise to more than 450 feet in the air.

The wheel was approved in February by the Clark County Commission along with plans for the new resort.

"I rode on the London Eye, and it was just packed with people," Ruffin said. "It should do very, very well in Las Vegas."

Ruffin wouldn't be the only Las Vegas resort owner to flirt with the idea of a giant Ferris wheel.

The owners of the now-closed Wet 'n Wild amusement park, the redevelopers of the Westward Ho site, the Rio and developers with a site next to the Aladdin have all pitched plans that included observation wheels.

To date, none has been started.

Bill Thompson, a professor of public administration at UNLV, said the observation wheel sounds like a "neat idea."

"It will be noticed. And I suppose if you're building something across from Steve Wynn, you've got to do something to stand out," Thompson said.

But the resort will also need a full complement of upscale restaurants and shopping to attract discriminating customers, he said.

While the Montreux name might not mean much to consumers, the resort could be a hit if it uses the association with the jazz festival to create a niche for jazz musicians and performances at the property, Thompson added.

"We don't really have a Strip casino that advertises good jazz music," he said.

Rising construction costs have pushed up the price tag for the resort to around $2 billion. The design is also more upscale than originally planned, Ruffin said.

Wall Street has awaited Ruffin's redevelopment impatiently, attributing his inaction to financing problems stemming in part from a desire to contribute relatively little in equity and a lack of management expertise.

Others reject that idea, saying Ruffin has plenty of money to finance the project and can hire resort management expertise.

He is one of America's richest businessmen but is known as a conservative investor. Forbes has estimated Ruffin's net worth about $1.3 billion.

Ruffin said business partner Donald Trump will not be involved in the resort.

Jack Wishna, a minority partner in the nearby Trump International hotel-condominium tower under construction, said Ruffin and Trump had discussed branding the redeveloped New Frontier as a Trump property, but that Ruffin has decided to put his own stamp on the resort instead.

"Donald would do it tomorrow," Wishna said. "But Phil doesn't need a financial partner and is creating, in essence, a legacy for his family."

Financing has never been a problem, although Ruffin previously was reluctant to put up other assets as equity to redevelop the New Frontier, Wishna said.

Now that the land underlying the New Frontier is worth much more than it was a few years ago, Ruffin can finance the project with a combination of equity from the value of the land as well as cash.

"Financing is not the problem," Wishna said. "The decision (to redevelop) rests with Phil Ruffin. He doesn't feel any pressure whatsoever from the market. He's not going to let the zealousness of development along Las Vegas Boulevard influence him."

Ruffin said he will likely sell some bonds to help finance the resort. Not counting the land for the two neighboring Trump towers, the 35-acre resort site could be worth at least $700 million, he said. That land, plus $150 million from the sale of a resort in the Bahamas and other cash on hand will allow him to finance a resort priced at $2 billion or more.

The 1,282-unit Trump tower, the biggest condo project under construction on the Strip, is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2008. The county has yet to approve plans for a second, identical tower.

Ruffin is a 50-50 partner with Trump in the first tower, which has nearly sold out.