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George Clooney Making a Side Bet in Vegas

The actor gets in on the growing off-Strip action with plans to build a hotel-casino project.

August 29, 2005|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — In the film "Ocean's Eleven," George Clooney robbed a casino. Now he's going to build one.

Clooney, nightclub owner Rande Gerber and two Las Vegas real estate companies today will announce plans to construct a casino, boutique hotel and sprawling condominium project on Harmon Avenue, just blocks from the Strip, in an area that has become one of the town's hottest development corners.

This won't be a resort for the tank top, shorts and fanny-pack crowd that plies the sidewalks of Las Vegas Boulevard to gape at the volcano, pirate ships and lions that are used to lure visitors to the Strip casinos, the actor said.

"We have this romantic notion of a place where you put on a jacket or a dress to go to dinner," said Clooney, 44. "We will have some sort of dress code so that it will feel like you are walking into a more formal Las Vegas of a different age or a classic Monte Carlo casino."

Although Clooney will be working with joint-venture partners Related Las Vegas and Centra Properties, both experienced developers, he acknowledged that he had no true expertise in developing sophisticated hotels. But the actor noted that over the years he had stayed in some posh properties and that he owned a villa on Lake Como in Italy.

"I may be the novice of this group," Clooney said, "but I have a good idea of what I like in Las Vegas, and it is all about class."

The 300-room hotel will be the centerpiece of a $3-billion, 25-acre project on Harmon Avenue just west of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The Spanish-themed Las Ramblas development will take shape on a section of Harmon that is about to be transformed by massive investment in high-profile projects.

Last week, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. and developer Edge Resorts announced plans to build a $1.7-billion hotel and condominium complex on a 21-acre Harmon parcel just west of Las Ramblas. To the east, Hard Rock plans $1.2 billion of construction, including 800 condominium-hotel units, 400 residential units, dozens of bungalows, restaurants and shops.

Nearby on Harmon, MGM Mirage and Turnberry Associates are in the middle of a $1-billion venture building 1,727 condo-hotel units. And where Harmon intersects the Strip, MGM Mirage plans its $4.7-billion Project CityCenter, with a 4,000-room casino-resort, three smaller hotels, a 550,000-square-foot shopping complex and 1,650 condo units.

"We are seeing the development of a perpendicular Strip," said Reagan Silber, one of Edge Resorts' partners. "There is easily more than $10 billion of development planned for this area."

Whether the so-called Harmon Avenue Corridor east of Interstate 15 develops into a full-fledged "Striplet" is a matter of debate among Vegas cognoscenti. But what is clear, said veteran developer Steve Molasky, is that the traditional Strip is bulging east and west.

"Everything in this area is going to turn over for development," said Molasky, who is completing plans to build a hotelcasino resort on Flamingo Road that will back up to several of the Harmon Avenue projects.

That has sent property values along the side streets close to the Strip soaring to levels seen for prime Las Vegas Boulevard real estate as recently as two years ago, said James Stuart, co-founder of Centra. His group, for example, paid $83.7 million -- or $3.3 million an acre -- to assemble the Las Ramblas parcel in March. Edge Resorts assembled the Starwood development parcel from December to March, paying $108.2 million, or about $5.1 million an acre, for the real estate.

The announcement of the Las Ramblas project, which will include the hotel, 1,326 condo-hotel units and 2,764 residential condos when it is built out, comes amid a boom in high-rise condominium construction in Las Vegas. The hotel will be built as part of one of the condo towers. That building and three additional towers at Las Ramblas are scheduled to open in 2008.

Although several developers in town have cut sweetheart deals with Hollywood celebrities for units in their high-rise condo projects, Clooney and Gerber say they are "significant investors" in the Las Ramblas development. Stuart said their commitment would run to "tens of millions of dollars," but none of the parties provided more details. Moreover, the pair is taking an active role in design and business decisions, Stuart said.

The idea of actually owning a casino came out of conversations between Clooney and Gerber when the actor was staying at the Bellagio filming "Ocean's Eleven," which came out in 2001. Clooney said the friends thought it would be "cool" to own something like the Bellagio, although much smaller and tailored to their own tastes.

The friends prepared a presentation and talked with Las Vegas Sands Corp., owner of the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, and a second, unnamed casino company.

"Everyone was interested, but it seemed like our hotel would end up as just an amenity in a 4,000-room resort. It wouldn't really be ours," said Gerber, who with his brother, Scott, developed the Whiskey Bar chain of nightspots.

Gerber, however, knew some of the Related executives because they worked in the Time Warner Center in New York, where he owned the Stone Rose bar.

"They would come into the bar, so I just called them up," said Gerber, husband of model Cindy Crawford.

It turned out that Related was trolling for Las Vegas projects, and after months of negotiations signed Clooney and Gerber to the deal. The two believed that the Related-Centra venture would give them more freedom to shape their vision of what a five-star Las Vegas hotel and casino should look like.

"I don't know that I will make a dime on any of this. I could lose my shirt," Clooney said. "But it will be a big adventure."

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