Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Week's Col: Losers' Las Vegas

Here we go with this week's Las Vegas Weekly column...Enjoy.

Losers' Las Vegas
A tribute to the casino saints who save us from ourselves


I’m a loser. I lose things. All the time. So far today alone I misplaced one of the dog’s leashes, my wallet and my wedding ring. And it’s only 1 p.m. and I haven’t left the house except, once I found the leash—under laundry waiting to be folded—to take Black and Jack for a walk.

I’m one of “those people.” I don’t know if it’s irresponsibility, easy distraction or early-onset Alzheimer’s. My mother is the same way. I look a lot like her, we both have constantly running noses, we’re both terrible drivers, and neither of us ever remembers what we entered a room for, so the notion that a lot of odd traits may have come in the bundle is quite likely.

When I’m in the house, I don’t even stress about it anymore. Unless I absolutely need the item at that moment—my car keys, typically—I just shrug and give it time, and the missing things eventually surface. Today, for example, the wallet was in yesterday’s jeans, and my ring sat on the ledge behind the toilet. (Sorry, Miles!)

I’m more careful when I’m out. There are traumatic incidents—a hearing aid left atop a pay phone, a thicket of sealed, unmailed holiday cards left under the seat in front of me on an airplane, a car thought to have been parked on the 3rd floor of a Strip garage in 115-degree heat that actually sat on the 8th floor at a different hotel—but for the most part I am trying to be more aware.

Yet because I am such a ditz and because I am out so often, the odds were high that I was going to lose something important sooner or later. I count on that and brace myself, but what I didn’t count on was that there are angels all over Las Vegas waiting to save us losers from ourselves.

Read the rest at LasVegasWeekly.Com

Lackland: The Basics on BMT

For those of you who are unaware -- as I was up until about two months ago -- Lackland AFB is the only location for Basic Military Training for the U.S. Air Force. It is a mammoth spread of 4.3 square miles and every single airman has endured boot camp here since 1947, when the USAF became its own branch. Boot camp terms have changed over the years; it's now about 8.5 weeks.

Jamie, my Little Brother since 1997 through Big Brothers Big Sisters, is 18. He was always kind and bright and well-intentioned, but he had a joke of a lower-school education, no study skills to speak of and very vague life intentions with no road map to get there. He also was starting to get into some minor trouble largely out of boredom and driving his mom nuts. So he enlisted in the Air Force and shipped out in January.

Until he ran by on Thursday morning during the traditional Airman's Run, we hadn't seen him at all. During boot camp, they have no phone, iPod, email, or other means of communications other than writing letters and, if he earned it, a few phone calls out. His mother received two or three calls, his girlfriend Melanie received four or five calls and those of us who wrote him received some letters. (I got three.)

So the first time we saw him since January was this moment...

...when he ran by us singing a "jody," the term for those holler-and-call ditties they and their TIs sing. Here's his flight (in grey) coming our way behind the green group.

The next time we saw him was a few hours later at his Coin Ceremony. This is when he receives his Airman's Coin, a token of his accomplishment that he is to have with him at all times, and recites the Airman's Oath. Evidently if he's in a bar and he doesn't have the coin, he has to pay. Or something like that. This was supposed to take place in a large square with all the week's recruits -- about 400 in all -- but torrential rains caused plans to change. Instead, we saw him get his with his and one other flight under the huge concrete overhang of his dormitory.

When we saw him for a second time, he was standing at attention and not permitted to acknowledge us. He looked so serious, see?

After the ceremony was over, he could not be at ease until we approached him. And that was a very wonderful but strange moment. He seemed a little overwhelmed by the sudden break in the numbing routine of exercise, make-work, intimidation, rules and isolation from his normal world. But then the sun came out! Here we are:

We had him until about 6 p.m. that night on base, and mostly we talked a lot. Jamie really wanted Burger King, but when we got to one, they, uh, had no burgers because the broiler was down.

So instead we made it to this mammoth Base Exchange with all sorts of fast food and stores...

...including a Claire's, a GameStop and hallway kiosks selling crapolina.

As you can see, Jamie shook off his awkwardness pretty quickly thanks to...

Baskin Robbins!

We all quickly became accustomed to a new Jamie, one extremely concerned about the scuff on his shoes, about the rules -- he can only eat sitting down, must wear his hat outside but not inside, must keep his clothing perfectly clean, can't show too much affection in public -- and about what he's doing with his life. But an ice cream sundae is still a delight and he actually concocted a list of foods he hoped to have over this weekend, every one involving sugar.

Friday was graduation day, which meant a big parade on the parade grounds. The perimeter of the grounds is lined with various models of planes that we'll get to take a closer look at on Sunday.

To give you some idea of just how many men and women graduate boot camp EVERY week, this is a shot of the entire graduating class for March 27, 2009:

One thing that struck me is that there were lots and lots of people from all over the nation there to show their pride for their relatives and their nation and, unlike the phony for-show patriotism of folks at NASCAR or NRA events, notice something interesting about this crowd shot?

Besides the three in the second row with their cameras pointed at me -- Jamie's mom, grandma and girlfriend -- the reason I like this photo is because you'll notice not a single person is decked out in red, white and blue. They don't need to prove to anyone they love their country. I was surprised and certain I'd be smothered by the Stars and Stripes.

Of course who needs red, white and blue when you've got swag like this...

Everyone was so proud. I just love this shot with Jamie:

And there's a very proud momma...

After the graduation ceremony, which involved lots of marching and patriotic songs from the band, Jamie was able to show us his dorm. Here's what it looked like from the outside:

That's the aforementioned dormitory and overhang where the graduation occurred. I'm kind of embarrassed to say I didn't shoot anything of the dorm room, a large room with lines of beds, both bunk beds and singles, with neatly tucked wool blankets. I'll grab some off Jamie's dad, who did shoot some, and post them another time, but here he is at his locker:

And this is his clothes drawer...

We walked a ton all over Lackland on Friday before leaving the base for San Antonio, the Riverwalk and the Alamo. I'll conclude this post with something that reminded me of Nevada...

Nellis! As in our hometown AFB! Speaking of which, yes it is possible Jamie could end up there. He is off on Monday to Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas. He landed the job he wanted, munitions, and now he goes for his 8 weeks of training, then gets a couple weeks off to come home before he is stationed somewhere. Could be Nellis, could be Italy. He put in a list of preferences which could be considered, could be ignored.

That's it for the moment. More tomorrow.

Friday, March 27, 2009

MGM Mirage Crisis Averted...For Now

Earlier today, MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren sent this memo to employees essentially blaming the media for the tumultuous week of peril, anxiety and controversy visited upon Nevada's largest private employer that ended with MGM Mirage covering recalcitrant partner Dubai World's half of a $200 million payment. In the long-term, this resolves absolutely nothing, but it gets them over the hump for this very moment.

Murren's was a baffling letter. First, he denied something the media didn't actually report -- nobody wrote that either MGM Mirage or CityCenter HAD filed for bankruptcy, only that one or the other might need to under certain circumstances and that they had retained bankruptcy attorneys, all of which is true -- and yet he also confirmed the bulk of what HAS been reported. Then he closes with an admonition to disregard "stories from others about what the future holds for us." Odd, that.

A blame-the-media campaign works pretty well in politics but not in business; nobody, least of all MGM Mirage employees, will believe that reporters had a hand in creating the situation MGM Mirage is in unless the case is being made that we didn't scrutinize the CityCenter plan better in the first place and ask harder questions about how this math could possibly add up. Otherwise, at least in this phase, we've gotten the story right at just about every turn in recent months.

Well, almost everyone has. This image and caption used to decorate AOL's presentation of the AP story on the debt payment was riddled with problems:

First, they're still stuck saying that the entire thing is just one 4,000-room resort called CityCenter. And they misspelled "project" anyhow. And this rendering, I think, must be a zillion years old. I can hardly recognize any of the CityCenter elements in it and have no idea what the tall tower in the middle is supposed to be. I'd never seen this rendering before, in fact.

But, regardless, MGM Mirage and everyone who is dependent upon the company lives to fight another day, although employees I know also tell me that their 401(k) matching stops and their salaries are frozen indefinitely starting Wednesday, April 1. Better than not having anything at all, I suppose.

This whole thing left me with a sense of deja vu until Miles reminded me that this is something like the fourth or fifth time some major crisis or calamity befell or involved MGM Mirage while I was out of town. I was also gone for the shootings at New York-New York, the car bombing at Luxor, the fire at Monte Carlo, the time the cousin of the guy making ricin at a motel prompted a partial evacuation of Excalibur and what almost was a major casino blackout last year.

So perhaps Murren is right. Maybe it is the media's fault. Or at least, this mediaman's. I accept responsibility -- hell, nobody at MGM Mirage does -- and I'm sorry.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hizzoner Sends His Chips To Vegas Airmen!

I've got to get to sleep so more on the Lackland experience will have to wait and, if you care enough you can follow my Tweets as stuff occurs to me throughout the weekend, but I couldn't resist the inevitable Vegas element. My Little Brother's mother works in the clerk's office at Las Vegas City Hall, and earlier this month she told Mayor Oscar Goodman that she was off to his boot camp graduation in Lackland. The Mayor wrote Jamie a postcard wishing him luck that he got a few days ago and also sent Jamie's mom to Texas with mayoral poker chips for each graduate! That's Jamie in the middle above and also here...

And here's a close-up of the chip...

It was somewhat less valuable than the other item of similar shape the boys received, their precious Airman coins...

...but the gesture was appreciated nonetheless. (Note: I don't believe that Goodman is aware that Jamie and I are related, so this had nothing to do with me so far as I know.)

Anyhow, it was an eventful and very wet day. We saw Jamie in the Airman's Run, then graduate in a reconstituted ceremony postponed and moved by torrential rains. Then we had the afternoon together. And there will be photos of all that to come with commentary and plenty of humor.

For now, though, I'll end the way my day began, at the motel lobby for free breakfast. They had a make-your-own-waffle thing, so I did it and only when I pulled it from the griddle did I realize that it was shaped like...

Texas! I wonder if they do this at the Vegas LaQuintas. They could make them shaped like a dollar sign or an ace of hearts or something.

Is Friday Doomsday for MGM Mirage?

I'm away and wasn't planning to be covering Vegas matters for the next day or two while I'm at Lackland AFB for my Little Bro's boot camp graduation, but I opened Jon Ralston's daily emailed RalstonFlash to find this as the first item:

Nugget No. 1 - Big day tomorrow in the CityCenter world. Both MGM MIRAGE and Dubai World must fund a payment and, sources say, so far Dubai World has not come through on its part of the transaction. If it does not do so, the project could be shut down Friday.

But MGM MIRAGE has other options, including funding Dubai's payment, too. And, the question looms, could the company find another partner at this point to infuse cash?

The reverberations if the project is padlocked will be felt all over the state, from the Strip to the Legislative Building.

Wowzer. The national economy is showing hopeful signs, but is tomorrow the day that Nevada actually falls off the cliff? I searched around to see if I'd missed any stories from either local newspaper on this and didn't find anything in today's R-J or Sun. But nope, nothing on either site nor on the blogs of the city's two key gaming reporters.

Am I missing something here? If Dubai refuses to pay, MGM may stop construction on CityCenter and the top headlines on local newspaper sites right now are about Legislature Democrats not having a budget plan ready by Monday and hearings on a lottery? I mean, those are worthy stories both, but does any of it matter if 10,000 construction workers lose their jobs tomorrow and 12,000 full-time jobs are thrown into jeopardy? Shouldn't both sites have countdown clocks or something?

Also strange, given this scenario, was the rather startling uptick in MGM Mirage stock right at the last few moments of trading today. See? (click on the image to make it clearer.)

Does someone know something? Or does someone think they know something and they're wrong? The stock, up 8 percent today, fell 9.4 percent in after hours trading.

I'd love to watch what happens at the opening bell tomorrow, but I'll be at a military parade for which I must leave my hotel room at 5:45 a.m. CT. "Eek!" in advance for all involved.

[UPDATE, 7:22 pm PT: At least someone besides Ralston notices this pivotal moment. The Wall Street Journal, of course.]

[UPDATE#2, 8:09 pm PT: The R-J just posted what appears to be Howard Stutz's piece for Friday's paper. No "breaking news" tag on it to denote its urgency, though. The Sun, despite having Ralston on staff and some of the reputed best minds in web journalism in their arsenal, still has nothing. Odd, that.]

A doctor's office in a casino!?!?!

Back when Hunter Hillegas of RateVegas.Com and I ambled through the opening night of M Resort, we both took pause at the notion of this...

It struck us and others that placing a pharmacy inside a casino served just one purpose, to lure in geezers. And luring them in with promises of free co-pays and the like seemed to be preying on geezers who aren't well and who probably are short on cash. In my interview for The Strip this week, though, Marnell defended it as an amenity just like the buffet and said he believes most oldsters are getting free meds anyway from the government so how could it be "predatory," as I felt.

Well, back when I first wrote about this for a VegasHappensHere.Com post on March 1, I wrote: "Why not have a doctor's office and eyeglass shop, too? As Hunter cracked, which locals casino will be first to market with funerary services?"

So imagine my surprise when, in quizzing Marnell about this and asking him what the next logical move was, he said that he's about to OPEN A DOCTOR'S OFFICE. Hear all about it starting at around 1:15:30 on this week's episode of The Strip. He says he's recruited a doctor who is popular in the region.

There was other news out of this conversation:

* The famous M Blimp will be retired in a few months when the contract runs out. Plans to sell advertising on it failed because the ad market has dried up and the idea of selling rides in its gondola just didn't make sense if the ship itself wasn't making revenue.

* The player's club has hit its 100,000th enrollee. (A press release on this went out today, a day after the interview.) Marnell said 95 percent were people coming into the property and the remainder via the Internet.

* Even though MGM Mirage invested $160 million in the project, which cost $1 billion, they own a 50 percent equity stake. I'm wondering if there's someone out there with, say, $200 million, who might want half of a beautiful new resort that seems to be doing well and also to help MGM out with its cash-flow crisis. Paging Mr. Boyd...

* There were plans to build a movie theater and bowling alley on the property but Marnell said they ran out of money.

I feel like I'm forgetting something, but I can't remember what. It's a good interview, even if you don't care about a locals casino. Marnell has lots of stuff to say about his dad, too, and what he's built. Go listen to it. No word on when the M Funeral Services office will be opening for business.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Show is UP: M is for MONEY

Here I am holed up on a motel in San Antonio, posting this notice about this week's show. And gosh, what a good one it is. We went for our first time to the new LVRocks.Com studio -- there's some background noise but they're still doing sound-proofing and other stuff like that -- and Miles and I were well rested and ready to roll. Plus, the Marnell interview yielded several bits of news that I'll recap in another post later tonight or tomorrow morning. For now, though, click on the date below to listen or right-click and save to your computer. Or subscribe (it's free!) via the iTunes link or via the Zune link. Enjoy.

March 26: Anthony Marnell III

His father built the Mirage, Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas, Sam’s Town, the Rio, Caesars Forum Shops and countless other iconic structures. But now is 35-year-old Anthony Marnell III’s time, with the surprisingly successful opening of the $1 billion M Resort way, way, WAY south on Las Vegas Boulevard. Marnell the younger talks this hour about the future of his famous M Blimp, about growing up on Vegas construction sites and about why the new resort is in some ways a way for his father to receive the recognition he deserves. Plus, Steve confronts him about whether putting a pharmacy in a casino is, as Steve believes, predatory.

In Banter: MGM Mirage's woes, Phil Ruffin's financing issue, Luxor billboards, hard-to-believe Lion King ticket sales, getting in trouble taking pictures in casinos and thought on Terry Fator.

Links to stuff we discussed or referenced:

The M Resort’s site
The Strip Sense column on the Olds’ visit to the M
VegasHappensHere.Com coverage of the Reid-MGM controversy
The Review-Journal’s Howard Stutz reveals that Phil Ruffin can’t seem to finance $175 million
VegasHappensHere.Com on the Luxor billboards
Norm Clarke’s report on the Lion King’s ticket sales
VegasHappensHere.Com breaks news that Celine Dion has inked a Caesars deal
Reviews of Terry Fator from VegasHappensHere.Com, the Las Vegas Sun and the Review-Journal
The R-J’s Ben Spillman’s piece about a blogger who fought with Cannery security about photos
The Poker Grump blog
The Dinner In The Sky in Las Vegas website

How big, and how much, is CityCenter?

Sorry to revisit stuff we've covered before here, but I was struck this morning once again by the fact that the media is all over the place with the price of CityCenter. Howard Stutz in the Review-Journal refers to it as a $9.1 billion project, but Liz Benston and Lisa Mascaro, both of the Las Vegas Sun, put the figure at $8.7 billion in different stories.

Benston's piece even includes this explanation:

Dubai World says at the time of the joint venture agreement, MGM Mirage estimated CityCenter would cost $7.5 billion. MGM Mirage has since increased that estimate by about $1.2 billion, with further increases likely despite recent moves to scale back some aspects of CityCenter, the lawsuit says.

So I wrote to Alan Feldman, MGM Mirage's spokesman. As recently as Jan. 8, he told VegasHappensHere.Com: "The safest apples-to-apples would be our previously stated $9.2b less the just announced $600m in savings" from shortening The Harmon. I asked at the time if that meant $8.6 billion was the current figure and Feldman said yes.

Well, that was two months ago. Today, inquiring about who's right now, Feldman replied via e-mail: "The Sun is correct. $8.7 total, $1.2 of which we are hoping to finance."

Okey dokey, then, although the Sun and Feldman can't both be correct because the Sun was operating off of figures given to Dubai in 2007 and Feldman said two months ago that the figure was $9.2 billion less $600 million. See how this can make you crazy? And this is a PUBLICLY traded company!

To Feldman's credit, back in January he did offer this caveat: "This is a number that you need to understand is moving. We continue to bid stuff, we continue to get new pricing. We talk about these numbers as if they're fixed but they're really not."

I am not casting aspersions on Stutz or any other reporter here, so please don't take it that way. These numbers change by the week or month. It's dizzying. Especially when you receive two newspapers in one every morning and the same thicket of newsprint offers different numbers. So the best I can suggest is that journalists, every single time they write about this project, ask Feldman what the current figure is.

MEANWHILE, how BIG is CityCenter? Well, in April 2007, VegasHappensHere.Com puzzled over that, too. Different reports had it at 76, 66, or 67 acres. MGM Mirage's original literature when the project was announced said 66 acres, a New York Times reporter called it 67 acres and other media were using 76 acres.

At that point, Feldman responded: "Please use 76. There's some technical debate internally, but 76 is in use far and wide and it's not inaccurate."

Okey dokey again. But then I noticed recently that the press was using 67 acres and the signage at the condo-sales kiosk for CityCenter at the Mirage said 67 acres, too. So today I asked again. Feldman's response: "Acreage: 67 acres."

Well, where'd the other 9 acres go?

"I believe some land was transferred to Monte Carlo for a parking garage."

Must be some parking garage at 9 acres. I pressed Feldman to explain further and he said he didn't have the time. I suggested holding off on this post until tomorrow if it would make a difference. He said it would not.

So there you have it. Make of that what you will. What I make of it is that numbers are very loosey goosey in this project so critical to the welfare of Nevada that U.S. senators need to get involved in to saving it even as MGM Mirage also insists it is totally capable of paying to finish construction so chill out, Mr. Dubai Dudes and Mr. Wall Street Dudes.

No wonder, then, Dubai is so uncomfortable. None of the numbers MGM Mirage provide ever come with comprehensive explanations. The 10,000 employees that CityCenter will hire? Who knows if that's a real figure, either?

Every 76 Seconds, Lovin' Happens In Nevada!

As I expected from my reporting in The New York Times in January, State Sen. Bob Coffin has introduced a bill this week to tax legal prostitution in Nevada. The state has inserted itself in a massive budget hole and Coffin hopes Nevada can lick up some bits and pieces from a business that hasn't had to come up with any dough for all these years. The lovelies shown here are just some of the wares at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, by the by.

What's interesting here are Coffin's numbers. He estimates that taxing each legally sold sex act $5, the state could raise $2 million a year. That's 400,000 legally sold sex acts sold per year, or about 1,096 a day. Also, 45 an hour! A legally sold sex act is occurring in this state every 76 seconds!

That does seem high, doesn't it? I mean, there are only 225 licensed legal prostitutes in the state. They'd have to be awful busy. But I suppose it also brings up what the definition of a sex act is. I mean -- hide the kiddies -- if fellatio and intercourse occur in the same encounter, is that two acts? Is the prostitute running a mental tally in her head to figure out how much tax to, uh, assess?

Gov. Jim Gibbons reacted to SB369 by telling the Associated Press' Brendan Riley, "I'm not a supporter of legalizing prostitution in Nevada. So by taxing it, there's a recognition of the legality of it. And that's all I want to say."

Um, but it IS legal. I'd like to not pay my speeding tickets and not recognize the legality of speeding limits, but that's not working out so well for me or my auto insurance bill.

The governor's missionary-inspired (he's a Mormon!) position isn't really that relevant anyway because any tax would have to be approved by a supermajority of the Legislature, which means that it's also a veto-proof majority. And Coffin's bill isn't likely to pass anyway; as I wrote in January, both the House speaker and state Senate majority leader oppose it.

Still, the hearings could be very colorful, particularly when lawmakers must answer some of the questions I've posed here.

Breaking: Ruffin May Pay MGM The Whole $775m

Yesterday, I interviewed Phil Ruffin for a New York Times piece we later decided not to write about the minor tempest over phone calls Sens. Reid and Ensign made to "encourage" major banks to lend $1.2 billion to MGM Mirage for the completion of CityCenter.

I was interested in Ruffin's take as a fellow in the process of buying the Treasure Island off MGM Mirage. He was supportive of Reid and Ensign's efforts to help MGM. "I wouldn't jump all over them," Ruffin said. "That's exactly what your senators are supposed to do." In fact, one reason the Times lost enthusiasm for the story was that Ensign cleared making these calls with the Senate Ethics Committee and other breaking news took precedence.

But in the discussion, I asked Ruffin about the revelation last week that he was having difficulty finding outside financing $175 million of the $775 million purchase price of the TI. He's putting $600 million in cash into the deal and MGM Mirage even offered him a $20 million discount if he could get outside financing so they could just have all the money now.

Ruffin: Isn't that the craziest thing? We’re putting up $600 million and they’re asking for the moon for the banks to put up $175 million. You ‘d think with that kind of equity, it wouldn't be necessary.

VegasHappensHere: Well, if you're having that kind of trouble on a relatively small loan, who could possibly buy any assets from MGM Mirage or Harrah's even if they were selling them?

Ruffin: It would be impossible unless you’re sitting on a lot of cash. The banks are too leery, they’re jumpy about Las Vegas.

VegasHappensHere: So would you just pay the whole $775 million in cash if they asked you to?
Ruffin: Yeah, I would. I would. If it would help them out, I might just do that.

Also, Ruffin said that in retrospect the decision to build CityCenter and put so much on that 67-acre property was clearly "a mistake. I like 'em. These are friends of mine. I think Jim Murren is a class act and Kirk Kerkorian is a friend. At the time when they started this project, condos were going like crazy and MGM had a very good retail set-up, the kiosks in all their hotels and so forth. Trump and I did the same thing and we had contracts on all 1,200 units. The markets cratered and only 30 percent have closed. The same thing happened in spades to them. But I think if you asked them now, they would say it was a mistake."

Somehow I'm doubting that. At least not now. Maybe in a decade when it all blows over.

Meanwhile, it's also worth noting that I called Harrah's senior vice president Jan Jones for her take on the Reid/Ensign phone calls. She said Harrah's has not asked the senators to intervene for loans but that they also aren't building anything and don't need the capital. But Jones agreed with Ruffin that Reid/Ensign "were just speaking out in favor of the biggest industry in the state. They weren’t asking for any special favors."

Jones also expressed frustration that certain anti-Obama forces want to vilify anyone trying to help out the gaming business. She makes this interesting point:

"It’s become in vogue to bash big business and it's always ben in vogue to bash the gaming industry," she said. "I don’t think they're thinking from the policy perspective. They’re thinking in soundbites. For some reason the word casino – probably mostly thanks to Hollywood's depictions of it – has a negative connoation, but when you really look at the direct and indirect employment numbers for this industry, they're much bigger than the auto industry. This is working class America."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Program Note: Marnell, Not Marie, This Week

Sorry, Osmond fans. I had my chat with Anthony Marnell III today and there were a few bits of news that came out of it that I don't want to wait a week to post. So we'll hold Marie Osmond to next week's show. But this one's pretty good, so don't abandon us! Join us at 6:45 p.m. PT at LVRocks.Com.

Adelson's Details Man Walks, Too

Brad Stone, the man who took credit on my 2006 profile for VEGAS Magazine for convincing Sheldon Adelson to come up with a theme for what became The Venetian, quit today. He followed his boss, mentor and ex-president Bill Weidner out the door. In that VEGAS piece, Adelson called Stone "the world's most extraordinary and efficient operator." Now what would be cool would be for them to buy some of MGM's assets and go head-to-head with Sheldon Adelson.

With this news, I went back to find that story in my hard drive because VEGAS content isn't available online and I've never placed my stories for them in my SteveFriess.Com archive. But I thought there were some too-precious passages worth dredging up again for the occasion:

Weidner and Adelson were largely big-picture guys, the dealmakers, and while they’ve had their hands in on most everything along the way, these buildings -- the two Venetians, the Palazzo, the Sands Macau, which was the first American casino in Asia when it opened two years ago -- are dusted with Stone’s fingerprints from top to bottom.

“I walk down anywhere in this building,” says Stone as he sits in a four-bedroom high-roller suite at the Venetian, “and I can see every little decision that was made. I can stand anywhere in that lobby and point to 20 things that I had to make a decision on. Whether the thing is made out of marble, not out of marble, the color pattern, how the thing flows. One of my primary tasks in this job was getting this place built and designed and functional. There’s a lot of my guts in this place.”


None other than current MGM Mirage CEO Terry Lanni, in his role at the time as head of Caesars World, hired the Weidner-Stone team to run Caesars Hotel-Casino in Atlantic City. After a couple of years, Stone was installed as the president of the Sands Hotel-Casino in Atlantic City, making him at 29 the youngest casino president.

“It was interesting sitting there in meetings with Donald Trump and Steve Wynn back then,” Stone recalls. “They were probably thinking, ‘Who’s this kid?’ "


Stone climbed to executive vice president of that hotel’s parent company before being snatched in 1995 along with Weidner by Adelson to help him replace the Las Vegas Sands. (Adelson had purchased the Las Vegas property but never owned the Sands in Atlantic City, to which he continues today to lease the use of the name.)

Stone knew instantly that this wasn’t a typical Vegas redevelopment job; Adelson, who bought the Las Vegas Sands in 1989 and then built the Sands Convention Center and Expo, envisioned a Vegas resort catering to business travelers and conventioneers. Admits Stone: “When I first saw that, I thought he was nuts. At the time, everything here was about cheaper meals, the casino was the main revenue stream and the rooms were a marketing tool for the casino. But Sheldon knew there were a lot of ways to make money in this town besides slot machines.”


While Stone regularly sings his boss’ praises, he also vociferously and legendarily squabbles with him in meetings. Adelson has a reputation for imperiousness, which is why “a lot of people are surprised at how aggressively we go at it with each other,” says Stone, who claims his most significant victory was when he and others convinced Adelson in the mid-1990s that the new casino needed a theme. “I’ve told him I appreciate the fact that I can be myself.”

Indeed, that no-wallflower style is precisely why Adelson calls Stone “one-of-a-kind” and “the world’s most extraordinary and efficient operator.”

“To say this guy is a yes man would provoke the most laughter,” Adelson said. “He has his opinions, and he doesn’t give up on them easily. There are times when we disagree quite strongly and, sometimes, I put my foot down because I have to make the decision. But he’s also spent billions of dollars.”

(For his part, Adelson insists he was always on board with having a theme. “Maybe he remembers one sentence I said at some point,” Adelson says.)


“What I’m most proud of is what we’ve achieved as a group (at LVS). It’s really just a couple of guys. Sheldon, Bill, myself and (senior vice president) Rob Goldstein," Stone says. "We started from nothing 10 years ago and we now have the company that the markets value as the highest market cap of any gaming in the world. It’s really amazing.”

And so it was in the good ole days, three years ago. So the next question is, when's Goldstein going to give up on Adelson, too?

Nice work, U.S.A.

On Wednesday night, I'm off to San Antonio to see my Little Brother, Jamie, graduate from boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base. There will be much more on this over this important weekend, but I just got something in my email I felt compelled to share.

Just two months ago, this was Jamie in the lighter-blue hoodie.

Now look at him!

For now, enough said. The weekend ahead will be full of emotional observations but also, likely, a lot of fun. We'll get to take Jamie off base for at least one but maybe two days this weekend and we're heading to Sea World on Saturday. I can't wait to see how he reacts after having been deprieved of all his creature comforts -- Internet, email, cell phone, iPod, TV -- for so long.

[P.S. Any readers down there who want to meet up, email me. I suspect I'll have downtime in the evenings.]

The Strip is LIVE tonight! Really!

We're back! LVRocks is back! All is better with the world!

Join us at 6:45 p.m. PT at LVRocks.Com for a live chat and to listen to how we sound and all the foibles we make before I edit the show and post it for podcast consumption! (Don't know if the studio cam will be working yet.)

Woo hoo! Marie Osmond's the guest. Plenty in the news. Join us!

Or wait a day and get the podcast on iTunes or at TheStripPodcast.Com. Your call.

Monday, March 23, 2009

R-J Finally Realizes Its Own Scoop! Well, Sorta.

[UPDATE, 7 a.m. PT, 3/24: The Sun's Lisa Mascaro has a piece in today's newspaper that fails to acknowledge the origin of this controversy, the R-J column by Howard Stutz. That, too, is inappropriate. If it had originated from the AP or Politico or the LA Times, she absolutely would have. Print media for far too long have been incapable of acknowledging their competitors' roles in how fast-moving news breaks. It's one reason the print media's credibility is losing ground to the Web, where even news-gathering bloggers almost always link to one other's work. -sf]


So here I am, getting MGM and the Sen. Reid on the record deciphering the tale that was merely hinted at in Howard Stutz's Review-Journal column yesterday. And between Jon Ralston and me, we bring it out that the Senate Majority Leader did, in fact, call banks on MGM Mirage's behalf to try to finance the rest of CityCenter.

The world starts to take notice. The Los Angeles Times and Politico.Com both write about it, crediting Ralston and/or me.

And finally, FOUR hours after I break this news here, along comes the R-J not just declaring this "Breaking News" but also pretending as though nobody else had done any journalism in the matter. Remember, of course, that I *always* provide credit for what the R-J or anyone else has come up with. If I discover I'm wrong in claiming to be first on something, I fix it with ALL-CAPS RED TYPE.

But there's the R-J, still pretending it's the only entity in the media universe. If Stutz had understood what gold he possessed, he would have called MGM and Sen. Reid's office before he even ran the allegation. So, Howard, don't go pretending that you had this awesome scoop and knew it and did all this great journalism to advance it. You get credit for mentioning the hint of the controversy first but not for realizing it was controversial or doing your due diligence as a journalist to ferret out the rest of the story.

And what's more, Stutz once again misses the news that he has. You see, by the time he wrote this it wasn't news anymore than Reid had made these calls. I'd reported that. The news he DID have was that MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., had done the same thing.

Of course, it took Ralston to fill in the details on that, getting this e-mailed remark from Feldman and blasting it out to the universe via e-mail:

Wouldn’t you also be outraged if a Senator DIDN’T stand up for the largest employer/taxpayer in his/her state and try to inquire about what issues stand in the way of financing the largest investment in US history and the largest job-creator in the nation? What Senator wouldn’t do that? Our two certainly did. There were public hearings on what the banks were doing with all the bailout funds they had received and the banks all claimed they were lending money. Have you seen any? We haven’t. As the nation experiences an unprecedented credit freeze on Wall Street, a politician calling on a bank to get funds moving again seems the right and appropriate action, not something deserving of scorn.

If I sound angry, this time I am. Normally, I comment on the R-J's shortcomings with a certain amount of humor and in the hopes that someone over there might once in a while take a suggestion or realize a mistake. This time it's personal. Stutz and his editors are absolutely aware of how badly they've stumbled on this story and they want to pretend they didn't, that they were on it the whole time and that that those shitty little pajama-clad blogger assholes don't exist. And yet, if we didn't exist, Stutz still would have no clue what he overlooked.

Spokesman: Reid Did Try To Help MGM With Banks

The Review-Journal yesterday published an allegation by an unnamed gaming analyst that Sen. Harry Reid was calling banks on behalf of MGM Mirage and asking them to give the casino giant $1.2 billion in loans for it to complete the $9.1 billion CityCenter development on the Strip. Yesterday, MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman denied this to VegasHappensHere.Com.

Today, though, I received a somewhat more complicated response from Sen. Reid's spokesman, Jon Summers. Here's the statement:

"The Review-Journal's characterization is inaccurate. Senator Reid has simply been asking banks to take a fair look at MGM’s CityCenter project to ensure that sound banking analysis is driving credit decisions, not irrational temerity over what is sometimes portrayed as a controversial industry. As we have seen on a national level, the lack of credit flow has created a hardship for a number of businesses and industries, including in Nevada. At a time when the state’s unemployment rate is higher than 10 percent, it makes sense that Senator Reid would take appropriate steps to try to help Nevada’s biggest employer complete the state’s biggest new project. With 10,000 current jobs and more than 50,000 direct and indirect future jobs on the line, Nevadans would expect nothing less."

OK. So then Sen. Reid DID ask the banks to examine this specific project? Via AIM, I asked Summers to clarify:

VegasHappensHere: Your statement does not deny that Reid has called banks on MGM Mirage's behalf.
Summers: Right, but he has not been raising money.
VegasHappensHere: I'm trying to decipher the difference. Reid has called banks and said, say, "Hey, please take an honest look at whether this is a good company and project to loan money to? Don't just say no out of hand?" Something like that?
Summers: Exactly. He wanted to make sure that a potential loan would be given serious consideration. The loss of this many more jobs would be devastating.
VegasHappensHere: Do you think making such a call would make the banks feel pressured because it's coming from Sen. Reid?
Summers: Again, he didn't call and say, "Loan them this money." He wanted to make sure that the company got a fair review. Those are two different things. Do we all hope that a fair review would result in an outcome that would preserve the jobs? Yes. But there is still a difference.

The thing I wonder is, if I'm a bank and Sen. Reid is on the line saying, "Take a REALLY good look at this one," do I feel implicit pressure? Is there any way for Sen. Reid to be involved in such an effort and not have the weight of his position come to bear? Are other senators calling banks with similar requests for companies and projects in their states?

One of the Wet 100 Reacts

I've known Andy Olson for many, many years. He's just about the nicest fellow you'll ever care to meet. He owns a company that organizes big events in Las Vegas, namely major fights and casino openings, that kind of thing. Most recently, he managed the opening of Encore.

Andy has a lovely home. Each year, he hosts an Easter Sunday brunch I usually attend. It's a pretty spread and all, but it's only .67 of an acre and, while it contains five bedrooms, he has lived there by himself for as long as I've known him.

So I was surprised when Andy landed at No. 76 on the Review-Journal's Henry Brean's big exposé on the top 100 water users in Las Vegas yesterday. And his story, I think, shows more than anything how Brean completely missed the real story in his midst because he evidently made absolutely no attempt to reach any of the people on this list.

Had he done so, what he would have learned was that Andy found a water leak last year that had sent his usage and bill through the roof. He didn't notice it at first because he had the bill on auto-pay and didn't look at it often. But last spring -- in a water-saving measure!!! -- he ripped out all his grass and replaced it with wood chips and other desert landscaping. When the bill only went up through the summer, he investigated, found the leak and resolved the matter.

"What I don't understand is, how come you haven't got someone at the water district looking at these usage levels and notifying people that something seems wrong?" Andy said. "I mean, maybe someone could have asked me, 'Are you filling a 3000-square-foot Olympic-sized swimming pool every day?' It was going straight into the ground. There was no flooding or seepage, so I didn't see it."

Olson also noted that his friend, the boxing promoter Don King, chimes in on the list at No. 96 and was No. 1 in usage per square foot. But King doesn't even live there most of the time and it's just a small townhome. Surely there's a leak?

Had Brean tried to contact the people he was shaming, he might have discovered there was this whole other, far more publicly useful, story here: The Southern Nevada Water Authority evidently has no controls in place to alert residents when their water use is so out of whack with their square footage that more likely than not, there's a technical problem.

Brean might also have realized that, while making a list that embarrasses people might be sexy and sell papers, it would have made far more sense to examine in greater detail the per-square-footage usage. That's where he might have found some water abusers, among the people who are using ridiculous amounts of water given the size of their properties and who either don't know or don't care. That a man with a 16-acre estate is using a lot more water than the rest of us isn't a surprise, is it?

And had he given folks like Olson a chance to explain, he would have probably enjoyed the irony that Andy isn't some asshole wantonly drowning his property while the city is parched but a guy who discovered his problem while taking steps to become more water-efficient! Instead, Andy's friends and neighbors are thinking they've finally learned how it is Andy always looks so clean!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Vegas' Wet -- and Silent!?!? -- 100

Beyond Howard Stutz' puzzling decision to allow an anonymous source to issue a potentially devastating allegation against U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, today's paper offered some other interesting bits worthy of comment. Ben Spillman's piece about a poker blogger detained and banned from the Cannery Casino intrigued me because the bottom line is that casinos are not within their lawful rights to force you to surrender or delete your photos. And Keith Rogers has a totally poachable piece about a Vegas man who may have finally found out, 65 years later and against all odds, how his father died during World War II.

But the most interesting topic was today's Wet 100 "expose." In a massive front-page story, reporter Henry Brean outed the alleged top 100 water users in Las Vegas that includes the list, the addresses and even aerial views of the single-family homes that guzzled the most in this drought-stricken town. Many are notables, including: eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (No. 2), Greenspun Media Group bosses Danny Greenspun (No. 3) and Brian Greenspun (No. 59), Station Casinos chief Frank Fertitta III (No. 4), Danny Gans (No. 5), Wal-Mart scion Nancy Walton Laurie (No. 9), Phil Ruffin (No. 16), various Wynns (Nos. 15 and 20), heavyweight champ Floyd Mayweather Jr. (No. 47), ex-LVS President Bill Weidner (No. 70), Sheldon Adelson (No. 79), and Don King (No. 96.) King, according to Brean, was tops in terms of usage per square foot. Surprisingly, Siegfried & Roy's lush Little Bavaria isn't on the list.

An eye-catching piece, to be sure, but it shockingly lacks one important element of good journalism: Brean evidently did not attempt to reach a single one of the homeowners whose names, addresses and water-usages are published. Nowhere in the nearly 2,000 words is there any indication that any of the people being shamed were offered a chance to comment. I understand the data came from government records, but government records can be incorrect. And outraged readers -- myself included -- had to be thinking, "What do these people have to say for themselves?"

What's funny is that the subheadline for this package reads, "Top 100 users consime enough water to supply 1,950 homes, but that's only half of the story." Right-o! The half of the story that is missing? The listees' side! Surely in 100 people, there were a few willing to explain, apologize or something. Instead, the only user given a chance to respond was a lady featured in her own little sidebar (which is not linked-to anywhere on the page of the main story, natch) because she apparently kept the bathtub in her mobile home running at full blast for years. She declined.

There's also a public safety concern here. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, was until recently the wealthiest Jewish man in the world and remains perhaps the largest private supporter of Israel. He employs a phalanx of security because he receives lots of death threats. The newspaper today listed what they claim to be his home address. Yet the county assessor's records say the property at that address is in the name of the Paul G Roberts Trust. Roberts is Adelson's lawyer. So it could be Adelson's property or it could be his lawyer's. So either a man who has sincere security reasons not to have his home address published has now been outed or the wrong person has been identified. Ick either way.

Could there be others here who do not live or even still own the property ascribed to them? Who's to know. Nobody asked any of them.

Sen. Reid calling banks for MGM Mirage?

Just one article into this morning's Review-Journal, already I'm struck by something that seems like it could be an enormous scandal and right-wing outrage if true. But I wonder if it is because R-J gaming reporter Howard Stutz buried it so deep in his column that either he doesn't see the implications or he's not all that confident about his anonymous source.

Stutz's column is mainly about what Kirk Kerkorian is up to now that his company is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy or worse. After MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren says point-blank that Kerkorian is not involved in negotiations with lenders, here's the passage that grabbed me by hte collar:

One gaming analyst said Kerkorian and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a close friend, have been calling financial institutions to try and raise the remaining $1.2 billion needed to complete the $9.1 billion CityCenter development.

Um, wow. The nation's most powerful legislator is ringing up investment houses big enough to pony up $1.2 billion and pleading with them to save a massive Strip casino development? Really? Does that sound sane to you? Sure, Reid has to be worried about what an MGM default could do to the rest of the already-tattered Nevada economy, but he's also in the throes of attacking the same institutions for the risky, lousy investments that led the nation to this precipice. And he's already taking some heat for possibly sheltering AIG prior to the bonuses scandal. Such phone calls would seem to be laden in all sorts of ethical and political minefields.

I just had this text-message exchange with MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman.

VegasHappensHere: Howard Stutz reports today that Reid has been calling banks for MGM trying to help get you loans for CityCenter. Is that possibly true?

Feldman: Not the way Howard wrote it. We (and hundreds of other businesses arond the country) have tried to use any possibly avenue to get banks lending again, including asking politicians to weigh in. They're not being asked to involve themselves in any of the detail, just to emphasize the larger public interests at play in making loans and getting the flow of credit started. This is very similar to the dialogue on Capital Hill in House and Senate banking committee hearings."

VegasHappensHere: So do you know of an instance where Reid has called a bank to ask them to give MGM or any other gaming company a loan?

Feldman: No.

I'm waiting to hear back from Sen. Reid's office as well. But such a claim is so incendiary and controversial that I'm a bit surprised the newspaper would run with it if Stutz didn't have at least a few sources claiming the same thing. Still, he clearly states it's the speculation of "one gaming analyst" who is granted anonymity. So it's either true and a huge scandal or it's irresponsible journalism.