Has Vegas City Center Lived Up To Its Promise?

The massive City Center project on the Las Vegas strip is about a year old. It opened to great fanfare and promises of economic revitalization in a city hit hard by the recession and housing bust. How has the project done?

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

The roulette wheel is still spinning on one of the biggest bets in Las Vegas: the $8.5 billion MGM City Center. It's the most expensive private construction project in U.S. history, and it opened a year ago in the midst of a terrible economy.

So how's that huge gamble paying off? NPR's Ted Robbins went to Las Vegas to find out.

TED ROBBINS: City Center is MGM Resorts' city within a city. Instead of a kitschy theme, it has award-winning architecture, interior design and public art spread among six huge buildings on the Las Vegas Strip.

When it opened last December, MGM warned not to expect miracles the first year. After all, Las Vegas' foreclosure and unemployment rates were the highest in the nation, and visitor numbers were down.

Mr. ALAN FELDMAN (Senior Vice President, MGM Resorts International): It obviously lost money for a while, in the first part of the year.

ROBBINS: But here's a surprise from MGM vice president Alan Feldman.

Mr. FELDMAN: It's now making money, and the fact that it's making money is quite an accomplishment in this economy.

ROBBINS: The enormous project still carries enormous debt, and it will even after an expected refinancing by MGM. But visitor numbers are starting to rise in Vegas, and convention business is starting to pick up. As Alan Feldman points out, the important thing has been getting people into rooms.

Mr. FELDMAN: No money can be generated from an empty room, just as no money can be generated from an empty airline seat. The difference between the casino properties in Las Vegas and an airline is that we have many cash registers.

(Soundbite of gaming machines)

ROBBINS: In other words, they can take your money in the sleek wood and glass casino, in the restaurants run by celebrity chefs, in the Cirque de Soleil Elvis-themed show or at the luxury retail stores - Tiffany, Gucci, Prada.

Rooms are relatively cheap, and City Center is still the town's new attraction.

Ms. CHRISTINE WONG: And since this is the newest, that means less people have slept on the sheets, less chances of bedbugs, things like that.

ROBBINS: Christine Wong(ph) and her fiance Leon Chang(ph) laugh next to the enormous front desk, topped with a Maya Lin sculpture at Aria, City Center's signature resort. But whatever the reason, the visitors from San Francisco chose this place.

Bill Real(ph) has already been here three times this year.

Mr. BILL REAL: Great rooms, good location.

ROBBINS: Price good?

Mr. REAL: I always get comped.

ROBBINS: You always get comped?

Mr. REAL: Yeah.

ROBBINS: How do you pull that off?

Mr. REAL: I lose a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBBINS: The biggest news story out of City Center this year may have been the weirdest. Last summer, the sun's reflection off a concave glass at the Vdara resort here melted some plastic cups and bottles by the pool. The media jumped on that story, calling it a death ray. No one was hurt, MGM put up some shade structures, and employees politely asked people to move out of the rays.

Ms. DOLORES WITHERSPOON (Security Guard): How are you doing, dear?

Unidentified Man #1: Good, you?

Ms. WITHERSPOON: Oh, you know, Dolores hangs in there.

ROBBINS: Actually, Dolores Witherspoon(ph) is doing better than hanging in there. She is one of 12,000 City Center employees, a security guard at the Vdara.

Last year, we told you how she'd been on unemployment, lost her house and had a sparsely furnished new apartment. Now...

Ms. WITHERSPOON: Well, I have a dining room table. I got curtains hanging up. My daughter, I bought her a brand new bedroom set for her birthday.

ROBBINS: She says the best moment came when the president stayed at City Center on a trip to Nevada.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: When I met Barack Obama, that was my highlight of the year because I brought history back to my family.

ROBBINS: A family with a full year's paycheck. Economic analyst Jeremy Aguero(ph) says things are just starting to look up for Las Vegas.

Mr. JEREMY AGUERO (Economic Analyst): It's not good, but it's better. Right, it's not healthy, but it's improving. It's not exactly where we want it to be, but it's not on life support anymore.

(Soundbite of gaming machines)

ROBBINS: It may be a long time before things here are in good shape, but the last half of 2010 may mark the time when City Center, like much of the Las Vegas Strip, began bouncing up from the economic bottom.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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