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Desert Companion

It sounded like a good idea at the time

Bad concepts, non-starters, ahead-of-their-time fiascos — Las Vegas has had its share

Bad ideaIn the fall of 1989, amid widespread coverage of the impending opening of Steve Wynn’s $640 million Mirage, students in Columbia University’s graduate program in history approached a colleague of theirs and asked, as a Las Vegan, what he thought of it. His reply: “Nobody is going to pay $125 to see Siegfried and Roy.”

Happily for Las Vegas, that supposed expert was wrong. From the volcano in front to the white tiger habitat and tropical rain forest motif, Wynn’s 3,000-plus-room resort proved to be an enormous success. Locals and tourists poured in and spent money, and the megaresort era was underway.

But at the time, The Mirage didn’t seem like a great idea. Wall Street was certainly unimpressed: Wynn had to turn for financing to an old friend, junk-bond king Michael Milken. No major Strip hotel had opened since the original MGM Grand (now Bally’s) in 1973, and the next major resort-building project involved rebuilding it after the 1980 fire. Las Vegas had only recently exorcised mob control and had an increasingly seedy reputation — or, as Alan King put it in describing 1970s Las Vegas, “polyester.”

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While it turned out Wynn was right about The Mirage, even geniuses fail. The road to a great idea, or even from it, may be paved with a lot of bad ideas, or ideas that weren’t quite ready — or, as a 19th-century Nevada businessman said of one of his railroads, “We built this line either 300 miles too long or 300 years too soon.” Here are ideas about and for Las Vegas, and the people who had them, whose time had not come — and possibly never will.

 

Annexation and Consolidation

In 1941, when California hotelman Thomas Hull built the El Rancho Vegas at the southwest corner of San Francisco Street and Highway 91 (now better known as Sahara and the Strip), he specifically sought to be outside the city limits to avoid higher taxes and fees, and to obtain cheaper land. By April 1946, with the Last Frontier also a success and the Flamingo under construction, Las Vegas Mayor Ernie Cragin and his city commissioners sought to annex the Strip. The city needed the revenue and, Cragin argued, Fremont Street actually attracted visitors who then turned to the new resorts. Since they “derived their revenue as part of Las Vegas,” he saw “no reason why they should not help pay the costs of maintaining our municipal government.”

The resort owners fought him off, partly out of fear that downtown operators would have more power with city government and use it to limit their growth on the highway to the south. When Cragin tried again in 1950, casino owners and residents organized a petition drive and persuaded county commissioners — who saw that the city’s annexation of the Strip would reduce their power over the area — to create an unincorporated township, which, under Nevada law, a city could annex only if the people living in the township approved it. Thus was born Paradise Township and, a year later, the county created Winchester. But if Cragin’s efforts had succeeded, his successors would have had a lot more money for municipal services and been the real powers in the valley, rather than the county commissioners.

Nor was the county’s unwillingness to give up power and revenue unique. When Oran Gragson was Las Vegas mayor from 1959 to 1975, he and other leaders explored the possibility of consolidating city and county services. The Metropolitan Police Department and the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District are outgrowths of those efforts, but like a Las Vegas that includes the Strip, consolidation seems to be a might-have-been that never will be.

 

Developers

Before Tony Hsieh there was Masao Nangaku, who planned to revitalize downtown with a 35-story office and retail development on Las Vegas Boulevard South, across from the Foley Federal Building. He and his investors broke ground for the Minami Tower in 1991 — years before the so-called “Manhattanization” of Downtown became a trend — and, for several years, the ground remained broken. It was widely derided as the Minami Hole. Finally, Nangaku gave the land to the city, and it became the site of the Lloyd George Federal Building.

Over the years, efforts to revive or improve Downtown have inspired a lot of would-be saviors. In the early 1930s, international investor Leigh Hunt planned a major hotel-casino downtown; he was neither the first nor the last to make that proposal. Hunt’s project never opened, but some of the land he owned in Las Vegas became the Huntridge neighborhood.

To the northwest, one would-be developer wanted to build an aircraft factory in Las Vegas. Howard Hughes had obtained about 25,000 acres of land from the federal government in a land swap in the early 1950s, and at one point hoped to move his research facilities here from Southern California. But his executives and engineers apparently preferred the beach to the desert, so the land sat unused until his heirs turned it into a master-planned community, Summerlin. Had Hughes’s original plan gone through, Las Vegas might have gained a research and industrial base and gone in some very different directions.

 

Bob Stupak

Perhaps not Stupak himself, but certainly his ideas. He owned Vegas World but replaced it with the Stratosphere, and many saw his proposed 1,149-foot-high space needle as insane. He finished it, but not without trouble: It caught fire during construction; financial troubles forced him to bring in a partner; the company filed for bankruptcy and Stupak wound up losing ownership to Carl Icahn.

Its Big Shot ride and rotating restaurant on the 108th floor became popular, but there have been other, less favorable, proposals. One of Stupak’s ideas was a King Kong ride up the side. Since the ape had climbed the Empire State Building, why not the Stratosphere? It would be 70 feet, with its arms, legs and head moving as it climbed; it would even drop a few feet at one point for the entertainment of the people inside. The idea died, as did a proposed roller coaster alongside the tower, battled to a halt by neighborhood opposition.

After losing control of the Stratosphere, Stupak proposed a new project nearby, to be called the Titanic: a 400-foot-high resort modeled on the sunken luxury liner. It would have created permanent shade for the John S. Park neighborhood and the surrounding area, and the Las Vegas City Council voted it down after a great deal of lobbying and teeth-gnashing.

 

The Grandissimo

Jay Sarno and his partners built Caesars Palace and Circus Circus. By late 1976, Sarno was the landlord for Circus Circus and wanted back in the game. He proposed a new hotel west of the Strip, on Industrial Road. It would be called the Grandissimo. And it would be grand: more than 3,000 rooms in the first phase, with a second phase nearly doubling its size; walkways linking its several buildings; waterfalls; a 2,500-seat theater, along with a smaller showroom; three pools, including one on the roof; and a roller coaster that would run through the casino.

Some of these ideas may sound familiar now, but if the name doesn’t, there’s a reason. Sarno often was ahead of his time — especially this time. Four years later, a stock analyst said, “The last thing anyone needs right now is a 6,000-room hotel-casino in Las Vegas.” Sarno had trouble raising money for it. The timing was wrong, he had a reputation for dubious dealings and gambling away his money, and, as biographer David Schwartz said, “He always put more effort than thought into the things he cared most about.”

The Grandissimo was never built, but other properties adopted Sarno’s ideas about themed resorts and other subjects: Caesars and Circus Circus became centerpieces of gaming empires, and he told a younger operator named Wynn, “Steve, ya gotta do something with water.”

 

Venice Before Adelson

Obviously, Wynn did do something with water, but he had another idea about water, and it didn’t rise to the level of The Mirage volcano, the Bellagio’s fountains, the Treasure Island’s pirate show or the Wynn’s waterfall. Rather, he proposed to put Downtown underwater.

The concept was Las Venice. His $25 million plan, offered in 1991 when he still owned the Golden Nugget, would have turned three major Downtown streets into a series of 22-foot-wide canals, complete with gondolas. He wanted to use recycled wastewater, which made it environmentally more acceptable, although how it would have worked remains a bit of a mystery, and line the canals with palm trees and gazebos. It ranks for many as Wynn’s one great misfired vision.

At the time, with baby boomers taking family vacations and “family values” becoming a political issue, Las Vegas was just moving into promoting itself as a family destination, and this might have been Downtown’s opportunity to compete for Strip customers. Instead, the designer Wynn hired, Jon Jerde, went on to work on the Fremont Street Experience. Later, the idea of bringing Venice to Las Vegas seemed to work out for Sheldon Adelson. So, maybe Wynn’s idea wasn’t so crazy. After all, the Columbia history student who saw no future for The Mirage wrote this article. Look where he is, and look where Wynn is.

 

Coulda, woulda, shoulda ...

Other dearly departed in the graveyard of big ideas

 

Midtown UNLV, 2004-2013

This public-private plan to turn the University District into a mixed-use urbster smartville lost momentum after the 2008 recession. In 2013, UNLV balked when nervous private developers asked to the college to take on a more risky investment role. Status: cold storage.

 

Ring around the valley, 1997

In the go-go-growth ’90s, state Sen. Dina Titus introduced a “ring around the valley” bill to limit growth to 120,000 acres in the Las Vegas Valley. Enviros and Joe Taxpayer: Yay! Developers and local governments: Boo! Guess who won? Status: dead and forgotten, even after the growth-abetted foreclosure crisis.

 

Las Vegas Zoo, 2003

A Las Vegas couple proposed a 100-acre zoo at then Floyd Lamb State Park, and bankrolled a feasibility study. Result: lions and tigers and bears ... oh, no. The city passed. Status: dead. Consolation prize: Centennial Hills is getting a national monument instead!

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