MGM MIRAGE's CityCenter in perspective

Dec 15, 2009 5:03 PM
Gaming Insider by Phil Hevener |

Is the beauty more than skin deep?

CityCenter is loaded with imagery.

It’s working like an $8.5 billion sponge, soaking up an overflow of impressions from around the world, speaking to that inner editorial writer in all of us, and thanks to the long reach of the Internet, offering a better than ever chance to put good thinking or utter nonsense on display before a global audience.

Not that MGM MIRAGE CEO Jim Murren had anything of the sort in mind when he went to his board five or six years ago with thoughts about the company’s next big resort project.

But on a canvas like the one offered by the Las Vegas Strip, there is no such thing as everyone being on the same page, or even the same book. Thousands of Las Vegans have been bruised and battered over the last year or so by a faltering economy’s fallout and the arrival of CityCenter has provided the opportunity to vent a wide range of pent up emotions.

That CityCenter may ultimately drive Las Vegas area tourism to new levels and transform approaches to resort building as The Mirage did 20 years go is, in the abstract, a wonderful notion, but it is beside the point to people who figure Las Vegas casinos have been mostly rolling down the wrong road since they stopped offering dollar blackjack and quarter craps.

Still, the only conclusions anyone can reach about CityCenter are subjective beyond words for the moment. The focal point, the 4,000-room Aria – it has the only casino in the complex – opens this week. At that time Cirque will debut its Elvis show and the multitude of bells and whistles that bring thousands of people into close contact with the slots and gaming tables will begin to work their appeal.

Until then there are the non-gaming hotels that probably say little to anyone who is not a guest. As for the ultra-high-end shopping available at Crystals, well, the pretty people, the luxury brand names and the gleaming architecture made for nice opening day photo ops.

Which brings us to CityCenter as an $8.5 billion Rorschach Test.

Seldom has any effort to create a new super resort incited so many people to bounce around on this trampoline for the emotions, exploring impressions in a public way about what Las Vegas is, what it isn’t and what it should be.

And just exactly what is Las Vegas? Is it a world class experience full of fun and games with something for every market niche? Is it too geared toward the high end?

Murren, a former New Yorker during years as an investment banker, has explained CityCenter on many occasions using phrases such as "urbanization" and the "diversity" of elements that can make big city life so rewarding.

Las Vegas could have more of that, he said, if it bought into everything that he saw coming from his vision.

But Las Vegas is Las Vegas, comes the whiney but accurate retort.

CityCenter has been widely publicized as the most expensive private construction project anywhere in the U.S., but MGM MIRAGE (MGM) Senior VP Alan Feldman said he’s heard from experts elsewhere on such things as large construction projects and has come to a different conclusion.

"It is," he says, "the largest project period, the largest private construction project in the world."

Feldman is no stranger to big projects. Twenty years ago he was a young agency rep sent over from L.A. to help Steve Wynn open The Mirage, a resort that was a monster for its time. The opening day cost of The Mirage was somewhere north of $600 million. It will never, ever work, the critics scoffed.

But it did work, as we now know and became the influence that inspired billions of dollars in resort construction. Big, big things have happened on the Las Vegas Strip since that day in November 1989 when Wynn and The Mirage welcomed its first big spenders.

For all that The Mirage did to encourage a wave of new resort construction it struggled to get notice outside Las Vegas. Feldman remembers that recognition by the major markets came slowly.

That is hardly the case with CityCenter and its various components. Feldman says it is very possible CityCenter will have registered "more than a billion impressions" by the time Aria opens. Impressions, Feldman said, are calculated by adding up the circulation and reach of the myriad media outlets that have run and will run stories.

The global appetite for news that has been created since The Mirage was new to the resort scene means there is little that goes unnoticed.

And that brings us to CityCenter the super-model, because let’s face it, there has never been a shortage of opinions about Las Vegas’ ability to strike a world-class pose.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Phil Hevener