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Vegas on a Roll : Whoever Thought Sin City Would Become the Place to Take Your Kids, Retire in Luxury and Bask in the Sun Belt's Quality of Life?

December 17, 1989|ALAN PRENDERGAST | Alan Prendergast is a Denver writer and author of "The Poison Tree," published by Avon Books.

WHAT DO you need? Come on, what do you need?"

Bob Stupak is holding court in a well-padded corner booth at Kelly & Cohen, one of the four restaurants on the premises of his hotel-casino empire. It's shortly after 5 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, but the work of a casino magnate is never done--not in Las Vegas, anyway, and certainly not at Bob Stupak's Vegas World, one of the busiest casinos in town.

"What's the problem?" Stupak asks as two of his associates approach him for a chat. "Is there a problem?"

The pair take turns outlining the problem. Vegas World is in the final stages of adding a second hotel tower to the existing complex, famous for its gaudy casino: an otherworldly encounter with angrily buzzing red planets, gold-speckled galaxies and silvery satellites suspended from the ceiling, piles of money encased in Lucite and mirrors, mirrors, mirrors. Some minor design alterations in the new plans require an architect's approval before work can proceed, but at the moment, Vegas World has no architect.

Stupak stares impassively at the pair of aides. Finally, he shakes his head and says, "I can't believe we're having this conversation. We already had this conversation. I put an ad in the paper. We're interviewing. What else can I do?"

He turns to a visitor and shakes his head again. "Can you believe this?" he asks. "Ten years ago, we had 90 rooms; now we have a thousand, with another 600 on the drawing board. When I started expanding in 1983, there was a recession going on, a gas crunch, and there were five casinos in bankruptcy all at the same time. Everybody was out of work. Now it's hard to even find people to bid for the job."

Stupak's amazement is understandable. These days, it's easier to draw two cards to fill an inside straight than to find Las Vegas architects with time on their hands. All of Las Vegas (and a good part of Clark County) is bursting at the seams, locked in a frenzy of growth unlike anything this perpetual boom town has ever seen.

For starters, there's the Mirage, unveiled last month amid a carnival atmosphere, and a massive traffic jam, as 100,000 people passed through the doors in one day. Halfway down Las Vegas Boulevard--the Strip--just north of Caesar's Palace, the Mirage sprawls across 86 acres of some of the most expensive real estate in the Southwest. The $630-million, 29-story, 3,049-room resort complex is the largest hotel-casino in the gambling capital, but it will keep that distinction for only seven months. Next June, the Excalibur, a $290-million, 4,032-room Disneyland-like castle with 28 stories, will open about a mile and a half away, at the southern edge of the Strip. And MGM Grand mogul Kirk Kerkorian recently snapped up 115 acres across the street from the Excalibur and announced plans for a $700-million movie-land theme park with a 5,000 -room hotel. New resorts and expanding old-timers will combine to increase the hotel capacity in Vegas by 17%--from 64,000 to 75,000 rooms--by mid-1991, with 40,000 more rooms contemplated in the next few years.

Beyond the Strip, in Las Vegas' underdeveloped downtown, Japanese billionaire Masao Nangakui, owner of the Dunes Hotel, has announced plans for a 35-story office building, the first new office high-rise in a decade. And city planners are eyeing a mixed-use development on 300 acres formerly used as railroad yards, a project that could more than double the downtown area.

At a recent city Planning Commission meeting, the agency considered 50 construction projects; five years ago, the average agenda would have listed fewer than 20. West and south of the city limits, residential developments and resort communities--whole towns--are multiplying at dizzying speed. The most ambitious is Summerlin, a master-planned community that will house 20,000 people within the decade, 200,000 by 2040.

The torrid pace of development is dramatic evidence that Las Vegas is becoming a very desirable place to play--and even a desirable place to live. The land of neon and pinkie rings and polyester is being bulldozed by another Las Vegas, a thriving resort that is also one of the five fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. At least one hotel-casino, Circus Circus, boasted of turning away 1,000 reservations a day last year, and in the past eight years, the population of the greater Las Vegas area has more than doubled, from 300,000 to more than 700,000. Now, about 800 new residents move to Clark County each week. (Less than half of the area's population lives in Las Vegas proper, which is hemmed in by suburbs.) What was once Sin City now bills itself as a chic corporate playground, a magnet for retirees, a town for families rather than a "Family" town.

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