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As stadium proposals compete, a look at the past and future of troubled megaprojects

MEGAPROJECTS HAVE LONG grabbed attention in Las Vegas. Megaprojects are really, really big projects. Projects with capital costs well into the nine digits. Such as Hoover Dam, which in today’s dollars would be about $900 million, or the gleaming glass-and-steel monument to Vegas’ last boom, the $11 billion City Center.

But we’ve also had some experience with not-so-successful big projects. Projects that, in retrospect, raise the question, Who in their right mind thought this was a good idea?

Taken a ride on the Las Vegas Monorail lately?

Las Vegas’ history, of course, is littered with the bones of projects that never happened, such as the Martin Stern Jr.-designed Xanadu Hotel, which got as far as Clark County Planning Commission approval in 1975. The Excalibur now sits on what would have been the Xanadu’s 49-acre site. Artifacts of what was called the first themed megaresort are housed at UNLV.

One of the more exotic proposals for Las Vegas would have been a lunar-themed resort on 250 acres somewhere in the valley. It would have included 10,000 rooms and cost $5 billion, said a Canadian developer. It still has an operating website, so we’ll call it a theoretical possibility. When the Moon Resort was proposed in 2002, local newsman Robin Leach reportedly said “This is awesome! It’s got to be built, and it should be built in Las Vegas!”

Not to be outdone, another developer still hopes to build a completely nonironic Titanic-themed resort complete with a Club Icebreaker and Iceberg Convention Center.

Other large projects that never happened in Las Vegas — some of which may not rise to the level of “megaproject,” but still were large dreams — include a London-themed attraction, a Star Trek attraction with a more-or-less real Enterprise starship, a Beverly Hillbillies resort, an Addams Family resort, a raft of downtown condo projects and many others.

Another sorry example is that 68-story blue monolith, the Fontainebleau Resort, built on the footprint of the El Rancho and Algiers resorts. It’s the second-tallest building in Las Vegas, so it’s hard to miss. It’s also hard to miss that some of the glass panels are gone, making it look like a high-fashion model with a missing front tooth.

The timing of this project was almost comically bad. Workers topped off the property in November 2008, just before the United States’ economy cratered in the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

In 2010, vulture capitalist Carl Icahn picked up the property for $150 million, and promptly sold off the furnishings in the mostly completed part of the property. You can sit on them in the Plaza Hotel downtown.

In the meantime, enterprising locals are offering guerrilla tours of the largely abandoned property, which is really just a big framed construction site. No plans have been publicly announced for it, but we can take some modest hope for the 25-acre site from past experiences with large local projects.

For almost all of the 1990s, one of the most characteristic features of downtown Las Vegas was a hole. A very large hole, right on Las Vegas Boulevard, across from the historic Fifth Street School. It was not originally designed to be a hole. A Japanese billionaire, Masao Nangaku, had picked the site for a 35-story skyscraper that he called the Minami Tower.

But the project had only gotten as far as excavation when he lost funding. So the hole — which, of course, everyone called the Minami Hole — remained. Several proposals were aired for the site, including a 500,000-square-foot undertaking called by its developer “City Centre.” Fortunately for MGM’s much grander project 20 years later, the downtown City Centre never happened. Eventually the site became home of the Lloyd George Federal Building, and city planners never, ever, want to hear the words “Minami Hole” again.

One of the big players in the megaproject industry is, not surprisingly, the Southern Nevada Water Authority. SNWA has a deep and reliable revenue stream for seemingly ever larger ventures. Work continues on SNWA’s “third straw,” a deeper, longer water intake from Lake Mead that engineers believe will help guarantee the region’s access to Colorado River water despite drought and overuse. But the project has been beset by accidents, schedule and cost overruns, and the price now is well over $800 million (it was initially supposed to cost just $650 million). SNWA debt has already forced a contentious round of water-bill charges — some businesses saw bill increases of several hundred percent last year.

But if you thought those bill increases were a headache, prepare for some real rate shock if the planned 280-mile rural pipeline is built for a cost now estimated at $15.8 billion, including $8 billion just to finance it.

While the future of that project is not yet written, it’s certainly not the only megaproject on the drawing board. Or boards.

Keeping track of the proposals to build a massive new stadium is a bit like herding a particularly uncooperative group of squirrels. Squirrels that are multiplying, forming and dissolving alliances — that’s a workable picture of our efforts to build a new stadium/arena complex for the many professional sports teams that we don’t have in Las Vegas.

According to the most recent information gleaned via the crack CityLife research team, which includes three junior high school students with access to the “Internet,” the surviving proposals among the eleventy-jillion stadium suggestions forwarded in the last several years are these:

Squirrel No. 1: Majestic Realty was in a deal to develop an $800 million stadium project, with all the bells and whistles, with UNLV, because clearly the university has too much money. However, UNLV dissolved the partnership, and now Majestic says it is ready to go it alone and build UNLV a stadium whether or not the university wants it.

Squirrel No. 2: UNLV, because it is awash in money from all those wealthy college kids, wants to build a slightly more expensive stadium for maybe $900 million and doesn’t like Majestic anymore, so there.

Squirrel No. 3: Caesars Entertainment has proposed a $500 million stadium project that would be enthusiastically financed by enthusiastic taxpayers, but the Nevada Supreme Court kicked the issue off of last November’s ballot because the gaming giant failed to identify where (or when) it would be built. The spatial-temporal issues remain unresolved, but Dr. Who is on it.

Squirrel No. 4: The Cordish Companies signed an agreement with the city of Las Vegas in 2010 to build a $400 million stadium complex. This is the last anyone here seems to have heard of the Cordish Companies.

Squirrel No. 5: This is a dead squirrel. Developer Chris Milam proposed getting a bunch of land from the federal government and building a huge, $2 billion stadium complex, but it turned out he probably just wanted to build houses on the land. Henderson city officials promptly sued him for fraud. So the project is dead, but the legal leftovers will continue to shuffle along, zombie-like, for years.

Squirrel No. 6, which appears very much alive: MGM and AEG, the ticket-selling folks, have teamed up with a plan to build a 20,000-seat, $350 million privately funded arena on the Strip. The exciting project sports the exciting slogan: “We have absolutely nothing to do with UNLV so far.” In June, MGM announced that it has hired an architectural firm to design to the stadium, which puts it far ahead of some of the other proposals.

So! Mega-stadium-project to come! Or not! But one thing you can bank on: Someone, somewhere, will dig a huge hole in the ground.