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Las Vegas bets the future on a game-changing new hotel complex

Even as the recession still reigns, Las Vegas bets the future on CityCenter -- a pricey, game-changing new hotel complex.

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By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

After just a day in Las Vegas's spanking new CityCenter, I was crystal clear about one thing: This was no place for anyone on a budget.

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Strolling the promenade on a Friday night, I contemplated my dinner options. I thought there might be a good deal at the Buffet, but the $35.95 price tag gave me sticker shock. I studied the menu at a restaurant called American Fish. The bigeye tuna looked appealing; the price -- $38 -- not so much.

"It's a nice hotel; just don't eat here," said a man studying the menu beside me. "If you want something cheap, you have to go outside."

Outside, of course, the recession still reigns. But you'd be hard-pressed to remember that inside CityCenter. Recession realities notwithstanding, Las Vegas tourism officials and MGM Mirage executives who spent five years planning and building this sprawling, 67-acre complex of hotels, restaurants, shops and nightclubs are hoping it will pull the city out of its foreclosure funk. They're so optimistic -- they are gamblers, after all -- that they're predicting that CityCenter, which officially opened Dec. 16, will provide a tourism boost of anywhere from 2 to 5 percent this year.

Never mind that you can find cheaper hotels and meals all up and down the Strip. And considering that the city's hotel occupancy rate for 2009 was 86.2 percent through November, down 4.7 percentage points from the same period the year before, does adding more than 6,000 new rooms to the Strip make sense?

"History has shown that new properties increase visitation across the board," said Rossi Ralenkotter, president and chief executive of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, obviously sticking to the company line.

Added Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association: "I think this is going to give them the shot they need."

But that could come with unintended consequences, at least at first, said Tony Henthorne, professor and chair of tourism and convention administration at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "Will it cannibalize other properties? Probably so, within a short-term period," he said. "But when we pull ourselves out of the situation we're in, I think it will be a wonderful asset to the community, to the Strip."

I had my doubts, but I was willing to be convinced. So I made plans to meet up with my high school buddy Roy and headed west to check out the place.

* * *

Right off the bat, at Las Vegas's McCarran International Airport, a discussion with a shuttle driver underlined how badly residents want CityCenter to succeed. It has created 12,000 jobs, bringing hope to a community that has been one of the hardest hit by the recession.

"I hope they get the clientele," said Debby Cartier (like the jewelry store, she told me, but no relation). "I hope they don't lay off those people. It's scary."


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