Imperial Palace made its mark in mid Strip

Aug 29, 2005 1:08 AM

Harrah’s pending purchase of the Imperial Palace — predicted by GamingToday a week before its announcement — signals the beginning of the end for the aging mid-Strip resort.

Although Harrah’s said it has no immediate plans for "substantial operational changes" at the Asian-themed Imperial Palace once it takes control, the handwriting is on the wall: Expect the IP to be imploded within the next 18 months or so.

The reason? The land is just too valuable. The Imperial Palace is on 18.5 prime acres between Harrah’s Las Vegas and the Flamingo — another Harrah’s resort. The acquisition gives Harrah’s a cluster of hotel-casinos on or near the intersection of the high-profile Strip and Flamingo Road, including Caesars Palace, Bally’s and Paris Las Vegas.

"This acquisition is one of a number of moves designed to strategically position the company for substantial growth in Las Vegas," Harrah’s said in a statement announcing the deal.

Harrah’s expects the transaction to be completed by the end of the year after it gets approval from state and federal regulators.

In June, Harrah’s completed its $9 billion acquisition of Caesars Entertainment, raising its profile in booming Las Vegas. The move also put Harrah’s in more direct competition with MGM Mirage Inc., the world’s second-biggest gambling company that swallowed up Mandalay Resort Group earlier this year.

Former IP owner Ralph Engelstad opened what is now the Imperial Palace in 1979. Engelstad, who suffered from cancer, died in 2002. After his death, the hotel-casino passed into the Ralph Engelstad and Betty Engelstad Trust.

John Mulkey, a gambling analyst with Wachovia Securities, said Harrah’s could be laying the groundwork for an ambitious project.

"They have assembled a formidable parcel that should offer longer-term opportunities for a more integrated development," Mulkey said.

Joe Greff, a gambling analyst with Bear, Stearns & Co., suggested in an investor’s note that the Imperial Palace might not be around forever.

"We think in the medium term, its makes sense to completely redevelop/demolish/implode this ... property," he wrote. "In fact, we would not be surprised to see this site be part of a major redevelopment for Harrah’s Las Vegas/Flamingo. Stay tuned."

It’s not likely many will shed tears for the old Imperial Palace.

But long-time Las Vegans will fondly remember the classic car museum on the fifth floor of the parking garage, the Legends in Concert show — the original and best tribute show on the Strip — the waitresses and their Suzie Wong slit-skirts, and the tiny, upstairs sportsbook that was the first to publish 18 pages of Super Bowl prop bets.

Players who actually gambled at the IP will likely smile as they recall how the casino seemed to meander in all directions, spread over the size of two football fields.

And who could forget the Niagara Falls-like flood that seemed to engulf the parking garage every winter.

No, not many folks will miss the old IP. But it’s memory will always be good for a smile or two.