Trump International Hotel and Tower, Las Vegas' tallest residential… (Ethan Miller, Getty Images )
Reporting from Las Vegas — Speaking to Republican activists here, Donald Trump touted something other than his potential presidential bid and hit reality television show: Trump International Hotel and Tower, a gleaming luxury high-rise and his sole Las Vegas venture.
"It's one of the greatest signs of all time," Trump said Thursday of the building's marquee, rising 64 stories above Las Vegas Boulevard. "You drive down that Strip, what do you see?"
"Trump!" the crowd shouted in unison.
"We got it built, it's doing great and we're very proud of it," the real estate mogul said, in remarks that were otherwise laced with profanity and attacks on President Obama.
But the reality of Las Vegas' tallest residential building — which Trump described as "very, very successful" — is different from the hype.
Conceived as a high-end hotel-condominium development in Las Vegas' go-go years, the project opened in 2008 amid the economic meltdown. Most investors pulled out and demanded their deposits, leaving Trump and his partners holding the bag.
The casino-free building, wrapped in 24-karat-gold-infused glass, now rests in the boneyard of the Las Vegas Strip, a collection of vacant lots, barren scaffolding and silent cranes left over from abandoned resort projects.
These days, the 645-foot Trump tower might be a metaphor for his nascent campaign: lots of splash, little in the way of substance.
As Trump touts his own business acumen, his Las Vegas hotel makes it clear that he fell prey to the speculative fever that gripped the nation — and particularly wounded Nevada, a state that will play a key role in determining the Republican presidential nomination next year.
Trump's partners here can only grin through the pain of their investment in the $500-million project. To date, the group has sold about a quarter of the building's 1,282 units. They're also fighting a lawsuit brought by investors who allege they were defrauded by Trump's sales team. Sales representatives, the suit says, promised high-yield returns on units that they argued could fetch as much as $600 per night as part of the property's rental pool.
This week, Orbitz.com listed midweek nightly rates at $111.75.
Phil Ruffin, Trump's key partner, said the project was operating as a hotel, at a profit, as partners waited for the real estate market to rebound.
The condo failure, said Ruffin, who is also the owner of the Treasure Island resort, "was never Donald's fault.... It was the fault of the economy itself."
Jack Wishna, a minority partner in the Trump tower, still feels the sting. His office boasts both a painting of the project and a view of the building itself. There's a picture of him with Trump at the opening; both men are wearing gold ties. His best spin was that the building, at the very least, had changed the city's skyline.
"If things had went along and we did everything a year earlier, we would have made $1.1 billion," he said. "Now, it's an annuity for me, Donald and Phil. We'll see profits in the next decade."
Housing and economic analysts aren't so sure.
During the boom years, developers saturated the Las Vegas landscape with luxury condos. According to SalesTraq, a local real estate research firm, more than 4,100 units in 10 high-rise projects are empty, waiting for buyers. That doesn't include thousands of more traditional condos.
"We have practically an infinite supply," said Larry Murphy, the firm's president.
Bruce Hiatt, a broker with Luxury Realty Group, said prices in the luxury condo market were 60% to 70% down from their peak. Trump's units were initially priced to start at $600,000 — and ascend to $6 million. This week, a studio could be had for about $250,000, Hiatt said.
In 2005, it was a much different story. Trump promised his tower would be "the crown jewel of the Las Vegas Strip." He promoted the project on "The Apprentice," prompting would-be investors to crash the sales center's phone lines the next morning. Wishna said 863 apartments were reserved in one day.
While breaking ground, Trump promised a second tower to meet demand — at a 35% price increase. Later, Trump devoted an entire episode of his TV show to the building. His biggest obstacle seemed to be getting approval from aviation regulators concerned that the building's gold reflective glass could distract pilots.
Trump celebrated the opening of the first, and ultimately only, tower in April 2008, just weeks after the collapse of investment bank Bear Stearns, a prelude to the Wall Street meltdown.
This week, Ruffin surveyed the damage, saying the abandoned projects surrounding the Trump tower resembled a war zone. "It looks like Baghdad," he said. "It looks horrible."
Still, he praised Trump and said he'd support him for president. "He's not just a showman," Ruffin said. "He's very, very brilliant."