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Strip Failures Say Much About Las Vegas, More About America

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Photo illustration by Brent Holmes/Bob Stupak photo courtesy Las Vegas Review-Journal

Reinvention has always been the game in Las Vegas. 

And we’ve seen many successful attempts at changing the city’s tourism landscape. Many more, however, failed or never got off the ground.

John Knott, executive vice president and global head of gaming for commercial real estate giant CBRE, has seen projects proposed and die before ground was even broken.

“Most of the dreamers that come to this town have an idea and nothing in their pockets” he said.

The list of proposed projects that may have sounded good but didn't go anywhere is lengthy but it includes: a London-themed resort, which for a time had billionaire Richard Branson's name attached to it, the Addams Family resort, a ride at the Stratosphere that would have sent guests careening down a rollercoaster over Las Vegas Boulevard.

There was also a plan to have a huge mechanical King Kong scaling the side of the Stratosphere with tourists in its belly. 

Two of those ideas came from legendary casino developer Bob Stupak, who built the Stratosphere hotel and casino. 

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"That's all Stupak," long-time Las Vegas columnist and KNPR contributor John L. Smith said, "It's kind of an amazing thing because a lot of those ideas are on the scrap heap of the Vegas story."

"That's all Stupak," long-time Las Vegas columnist and KNPR contributor John L. Smith said, "It's kind of an amazing thing because a lot of those ideas are on the scrap heap of the Vegas story."

Stupak’s attempt to gain approval of The Titanic, a time-share based on the ill-fated cruise ship sank.

There have also been multiple plans for observation wheels. One actually had the supports in the ground before it was halted. The one that was actually built is the High Roller at the Linq. 

"How many wheels did we see around town before Caesars built one?" Knott said, "We're not a two-wheel town and we're certainly not a three-wheel town. There is some question about whether we're a one-wheel town." 

Both Knott and Smith agree that when it comes to what does get built in Las Vegas and what will be added to pile of broken dreams depends on money and who can access it.

“It’s the one who gets to the money, who gets to the drawing board, who gets to the architects and who can pull off that design, which is a one in a million,” Smith said, "The dreamers are many in Las Vegas but the players are few."

Knott says it has become a lot more difficult for the schemers to waltz into town make big promises and disappear without doing much of anything. 

"25 years ago, every dreamer in the world came running through here as a promoter," he said, "It's much more difficult today"

"25 years ago, every dreamer in the world came running through here as a promoter," he said, "It's much more difficult today"

Architecture critic and author Alan Hess said big money from mobsters in the early days of Las Vegas allowed architects to design interesting resorts, attractions and neon signs.

"These creative people had carte blanche and they took and ran really as far as they possible could." he said, "And created, in my sense, a real high-water mark of American architectural design,"

He actually compares early Las Vegas with Florence during the Renaissance, where money, ideas and talent converged to produce amazing works of art and architecture. 

For Hess, the Sands was that high-water mark. 

"The Sands epitomized the luxury, the inventiveness, the willingness to try new things that really, to me, epitomized what Las Vegas architecture is all about," he said. "It was just a beautiful piece of architecture."

Architect T.R. Witcher teaches at UNLV School of Architecture. He said The Bellagio wins best design for him because of what it says about the city.

"I think Bellagio best encapsulates what Las Vegas wants to be," he said, "How it wants to see itself as elegant and stylish and sort of opulent but in kind of an accessible way.”

Both Witcher and Hess believe City Center and its attempt to be "real architecture" really missed what Las Vegas is really about. 

"City Center is where Las Vegas lost its way," Hess said, "It lost its conviction of its own character." 

Hess believes Las Vegas needs a new Jay Sarno, who created Ceasers Palace and Circus Circus, or a new Steve Wynn to really "capture and define" what the future of Las Vegas might be. 

"For me, the Las Vegas story is this canvas on the desert for dreamers and schemers and folks who actually bring a little money to the table," Smith said. 

Guests

Alan Hess, architecture critic, San Jose Mercury News, author of “Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture.”; T.R. Witcher, teaches at UNLV School of Architecture and writes about architecture; John Knott, executive vice president and global head of gaming for CBRE; John L. Smith, longtime columnist in Las Vegas, KNPR contributor/analyst

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