New kid on the block

Those of us greybeards who have watched the development and modernization of Las Vegas over the last half century always marvel at the “next big thing.” Although I was a few years away from settling here, I remember the national fuss when the original MGM Grand opened in 1973.

A Who’s Who of Hollywood arrived for the gala. Cary Grant, Barbra Streisand, Jimmy Stewart and Audrey Hepburn were just part of the contingent of A-list stars on hand.

When The Mirage opened on Thanksgiving weekend of 1989, the international media made an even bigger fuss. The resort with the exploding volcano and white tigers and swimming dolphins made the cover of TIME magazine and a dozen other national publications. The world applauded again when Bellagio with its glass floral sculptures and dancing waters cut the ribbon in 1998.

With each spectacular new resort, Las Vegas got classier in the eyes of the world. By then the mob-linked thugs in the pin-striped suits were ancient history.

The growth of the company now known as MGM Resorts was on everybody’s tongue around the turn of the century. MGM had purchased Primadonna at Stateline in 1998, and then shocked the world with the buyout of Steve Wynn’s Mirage Resorts in 2000. It was an acquisition kept so secret that local media had no sniff of the transaction before the news broke nationally the week the deal was consummated.

Five years later, MGM acquired Mandalay Bay Group in a $9 billion takeover. Jim Murren, then MGM’s Chief Financial Officer, had been lured from Wall Street to Las Vegas by Kirk Kerkorian. Jim and his wife Heather, who also became deeply involved in the community, fell quickly in love with Las Vegas, but Jim’s vision was to create something above and beyond another themed resort on the Strip. With his East Coast upbringing and love of art, Murren presented a proposal to his board of directors that would raise the bar once again.

He dreamed not just of one resort, but an urban complex spread over 76 acres. Early on it was called Project CityCenter and would feature relaxing public spaces, an emphasis on environmental respect, and properties that looked as though they could fit into the cultural atmosphere of the East Coast or Europe.

Murren retired from MGM earlier this year, and he has volunteered his time since then in helping Nevada battle the coronavirus pandemic. He was generous with this interviewer after CityCenter opened in late 2009.

“We wanted to develop something that was diverse in its offerings,” he said then. “We had to create a lot of public spaces and many private moments where exciting things could happen beyond simply a casino-hotel. We had to find architects that could stretch our boundaries of knowledge.

“We all felt strongly that Las Vegas was becoming a more global city that was attracting a far more global audience than in past generations. We had to offer these visitors a lot of the unexpected. And we had to have sustainability as a cornerstone. We utterly had ignored and abused and had an almost belligerent attitude towards our environment here, and I find that offensive and wrong. So we had to find the right people who could help us accomplish this sustainability.”

When construction began in 2006, the national economy was healthy, land prices were skyrocketing, and all seemed right for what would become the largest privately funded construction project in the history of the country. Then the sub-prime scandal and the national economic downturn of 2007 reared its ugly head. For several months, the well underway construction of CityCenter was in peril.

Murren and his MGM braintrust went through several refinancings, a complicated partnership for a time with Dubai World, and even a moment when the Las Vegas police department guarded the perimeter of the property when it looked like all construction could possibly be halted and the 10,000 workers sent home.

It’s hard in retrospect to imagine what that would have meant to Las Vegas at that perilous time. Fortunately, Murren and his team pulled off a number of brilliant strategies and CityCenter, with its many lustrous properties: Aria, Mandarin Oriental, Vdara, Crystals and Veer Towers, opened majestically in December 2009.

We all welcome the latest visionary, Derek Stevens, huge success as his Circa Resort & Casino opens this week and adds another gleaming chapter to the Las Vegas story.

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