Viva Las Vegas? Keep Watching CityCenter

They said it would never happen. Well, some did, anyway.

Six years after MGM Mirage conceived what may be the biggest gamble in Las Vegas history—a gamble which threatened to bankrupt the company—the crown jewel of its $8.5 billion CityCenter development opens this week: Aria, a 4,000-room gaming resort, starts accepting guests Thursday morning after a Wednesday night fireworks-laden gala.

Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter in Las Vegas, Nevada
Source: Jane Wells
Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter in Las Vegas, Nevada

"For one brief moment, we can just savor this," one MGM Mirage official told me, acknowledging that there is still "much work to be done."

MGM Mirage Chief Executive Jim Murren will be live on our air tomorrow (Tuesday) to talk about that work: the company's debt, issues with partner Dubai World, whether condo sales are going to close even after a 30 percent price cut. But he can also take stock of the obstacles already overcome to bring CityCenter to its fully-funded completion (a separate tower, the Harmon hotel, won't open until next year).

So far this morning, I've been inside the Vdara hotel-condo and inside Aria, where crews are putting on the finishing touches and employees are getting tours and final training.

These structures feel massive by Vegas standards, and that's no small thing. The soaring spaces are muted by lots of chocolate brown, plum, green. It is a city unto itself, and while competitors up and down the Strip want CityCenter to succeed if it'll save Las Vegas, they worry about the thousands of new hotel rooms it's bringing into a market which continues to suffer.

Anecdotally, the plane I flew from Burbank this morning was half-empty, and the airport was desolate. Granted, this is a Monday morning in December. The cabbie told me business remains down as much as 40 percent. It's not getting worse, but it's not getting better.

However, the most recent figures from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority show improvement. October visitors to the city totaled 3.15 million, nearly 4 percent better from a year ago, though year-to-date the visitor volume is down 4 percent, to 30,666,730. That volume peaked in 2007 at a record 39 million. Average room rates continue to fall, but at a slower pace, now $99.59, versus $115.68 a year ago. Both convention attendance in October—350,000—and gaming revenue on the Strip—$426,3000—are down, but improving.

CB Richard Ellis says, "Assuming certain economic projections hold, total Las Vegas Strip gaming and non-gaming revenue will increase 3 percent to 7 percent in 2010."

Aria Resort & Casino and Veer Towers at CityCenter in Las Vegas, Nevada
Getty Images
Aria Resort & Casino and Veer Towers at CityCenter in Las Vegas, Nevada

As for CityCenter? "It is difficult to make the case that CityCenter will not have at least some dilutive effect," the CBRE report says. "If CityCenter can make even small strides in approaching the positive impact on the market that projects such as the Bellagio, Venetian, and Mandalay Bay had in 1998-2000, the upside potential outweighs the downside risk..."

MGM Mirage's CEO believes CityCenter alone can increase traffic to Las Vegas by as much as 10 percent next year, as people just want to see it for themselves, even if they're not staying here. It will be something to see, and, given the current state of affairs, we will not see anything like it opening in Vegas for a very long time. You can bet on that.

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