New $9 billion casino redefines Vegas strip

The centerpiece of an US$8.5-billion (A$9.4 billion) complex intended to redefine the Las Vegas resort experience, opens today with a lavish private party and fireworks.

Thousands of tourists and Las Vegans are expected to pour into the Aria Hotel-Casino after celebrities, moguls and other VIPs mark the official completion of the most expensive private construction project in US history.

Aria is the glass-sheathed Cesar Pelli-designed 4004-room hotel at the heart of CityCenter, a 67-acre complex of hotels, condominiums and retail on the Las Vegas Strip.

"I couldn't be happier today," said Pelli, the legendary 83-year-old architect best known for designing the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia. "This is the result of all our talents coming together to achieve a great goal."

Pelli was on hand along with the all-star team of architects who designed five of the other projects at CityCenter including Rafael Vinoly, Daniel Libeskind, David Rockwell and Helmut Jahn.

CityCenter was the brainchild of MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren, who conceived in 2004 the idea of using the company's large plot of undeveloped land immediately south of the existing Bellagio casino to create a new urban center for sprawling Las Vegas.

Three of the buildings contain a total of 2,440 condominiums, an effort to create a dense, New York-inspired lifestyle option on the Strip.

The opening of Aria concludes a two-week launch that also featured bows for the 57-story hotel-condo Vdara tower, the 500,000-square-foot high-end retail center called The Crystals and the 47-story Mandarin Oriental hotel that also contains 225 private residences.

A pair of twin leaning yellow-checkered all-condo towers and one more hotel are due to open in 2010.

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Aria is the central piece of the complex as the only building with the staples of Vegas, a casino, a lineup of star-chef eateries, a lavish spa, a large convention center and a show.

Viva Elvis, a new Cirque du Soleil production scored by Elvis Presley music, begins previews start this week. Presley's widow, Priscilla, was on hand for the opening.

"The buildings are done, the architecture's around us, the art is in place, the chefs are prepared, the staff has been highly trained," said Murren at a midday ceremony kicking off 12 hours of parties.

"The atmosphere inside is electric, it's palpable. The anticipation has been building in the last several days into a crescendo, in fact an aria."

Later, Murren rang the closing bell for the New York Stock Exchange via satellite from CityCenter, clanging a bell used for most of the major boxing matches in Las Vegas in recent decades.

President Barack Obama is tentatively scheduled to tour the complex on December 23 en route to his Christmas holiday in Hawaii.

The five-year construction project hit a major scare in March when joint venture partner Dubai World sued MGM Mirage to get out of having to continue to pay its portion. The row was resolved by marathon negotiations between MGM Mirage, Dubai World and its lenders throughout April.

Murren has said he is unconcerned about Dubai World's more recent financial travails because CityCenter is now fully funded and completed. If Dubai World should face bankruptcy, MGM Mirage could even acquire its half of the ownership stake, he said.

Still, MGM Mirage faces other challenges with CityCenter, which adds about 6,000 new hotel rooms to a market that already has 141,000 and has seen occupancy reside in the low-80-per cent range for most of 2009.

The Las Vegas economy has suffered its worst downturn since gambling was legalized in the 1930s. Visitation is on track to slump to 35 million in 2009, down from a record 39.2 million in 2007 and the destination's lowest count since 1999.

Room rates now average 92 dollars per night, 23 per cent lower than the 2008 average, according to data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. And 2008 was 10 per cent below 2007.

Murren predicted CityCenter would boost visitation to the city by seven per cent in 2010 and be the catalyst for the region's economic recovery.

"We believe Las Vegas is a better place today because of CityCenter," Murren told the crowd. "People will find anew a reason to come and travel. People want to be on the road, aspire to a better day."

AFP

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