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George Knapp: The curse of Tony Cornero

If there is such a thing as a cursed patch of land, the acreage underneath the soon-to-be-built mega project known as Resorts World Las Vegas would qualify. The announcement this week that a Malaysian conglomerate will pour billions into the creation of a glittering development above the bones of the old mob-tainted Stardust is wonderful news, but I hope these Malaysian execs are not superstitious.

First, it is flat-out astonishing that something this big was kept quiet for so long. The board of the Genting Corp. knew about it, as did many of the company’s senior executives. Ditto for the Boyd Gaming Group. Public-relations guru Sig Rogich, who works the local media as well as anyone and has extensive contacts in the local press corps, confirms he’s been attached to the project for nine months or so. The governor’s office was brought into the loop last fall. Sen. Harry Reid was briefed almost three months ago. A few rival gaming corporations caught wind that something was up in recent weeks. And a pair of county commissioners was invited, days in advance, to the grand announcement.

And yet, not a word was leaked or even breathed until Genting was ready to uncork its plans. People say Washington leaks like a sieve, but Las Vegas might be the most transparent city in America. Nothing stays a secret for long here because the town is still so tightly knit. We might keep secrets from the outside world, but we don’t keep secrets from ourselves. Except this time.

It drove me crazy to hear a few general details about pending sale of the Echelon site by Boyd Group but be unable to say anything. I sent out a cryptic and meaningless tweet late last week, announcing that “something really big” was coming, but that was the extent of my coverage. R-J gaming reporter Howard Stutz and columnist Norm Clarke both knew bits and pieces of the story ahead of time but likewise had to wait until Genting and Boyd gave the green light.

An investment of up to $7 billion dollars is welcome anywhere, but especially in Las Vegas, which has been mired in a slump for the past five years. We might be the only place in the world where locals didn’t bat an eye about a billion dollar this or a two-billion-dollar that because, for so many years, we were spoiled by so many huge and innovative projects. But it’s been a long time since our town has heard this kind of economic news, and the psychological boost from Genting’s investment could be every bit as important as the actual dollars.

I’m guessing they were pouring shooters and doing spontaneous break-dancing moves in union halls all over the valley. Tens of thousands of construction jobs vanished with the economic slump, and it will be great to see our ironworkers, electrical tradesmen, carpenters and others get back to work. And contrary to some uninformed speculation, other gaming properties have got to be happy, as well. True, there might be more competition for visitors once Resorts World is open, but that’s nothing new for our town. As one Boyd executive told me, what’s good for Las Vegas is good for us, and this is good for Las Vegas. The California businessman who is planning to rebuild and rebrand the old Sahara might be the happiest of all, since the Genting project will bring so much energy and attention to the north end of the Strip.

If there is anyone who might not be thrilled about Genting coming to town, it’s Sheldon Adelson of the Venetian. See, Genting operates one of only two casinos in Singapore. Adelson runs the other one. Sometime this year, Singapore will surpass Las Vegas as the second most lucrative gambling city in the world. Genting, which reported a whopping $4.4 billion in cash sitting in its bank account as of a few weeks ago, will now invest a pile of the money it made from Asian gamblers into a project right outside of Adelson’s base of operations. Genting has made it clear that it will compete with Adelson and Steve Wynn for the high-rolling, big-spending Asian customers who’ve become so important to the bottom lines of the biggest gambling conglomerates. My guess is that Adelson will welcome Genting to town, just like all the other gaming bigwigs, even though their entry into the Las Vegas market might feel like someone just stuck him in the eye with a red-hot poker.

For Boyd Gaming, this development is almost entirely positive. The company will end up with more than $150 million in cash, which it could use to pay off debt or invest in its existing properties (nine of them in Las Vegas). More importantly, says Boyd’s David Strow, is that the sale of the land saves the company $60 million a year it was paying to maintain the site. Boyd lost a ton of money in the long run, but the decision to halt construction of the Echelon in 2008 was the right one for that time, and selling the property now is right again, for Las Vegas and for Boyd. Boyd’s stock jumped 14 percent on the day the project was made public.

There’s no doubt it will be a mixed emotional bag for some within Boyd who had such grand hopes for the property. They will get to see the shell of their planned mega-casino transformed into a living entity and thing of beauty, but a few company exec’s will undoubtedly have melancholic thoughts of what might have been.

That piece of dirt has caused a lot of heartache in the decades since it was first developed. Bootlegger and illegal gambler Tony Cornero ran out of money when he first tried to build the Stardust and had to bring in some partners … Moe Dalitz and Meyer Lansky. Cornero, who had survived earlier murder attempts, died while shooting craps at the DI (some think he was poisoned) and didn’t live to see the Stardust open. Of course, the Stardust — acquired with money from the Teamster’s Pension Fund — became the heart and soul of the mob’s massive skimming operation in Las Vegas, the place run by Lefty Rosenthal and frequented by Tony Spilotro. Even after the state forced a sale of the place, it was still controlled by Mafia skimmers. When the truth finally came spilling out, the Stardust was a major black eye for our city, even though its troubles led to the demise of the Chicago Outfit.

When the Boyds took control, everyone figured the Stardust’s best days were ahead. The company closed the place in 2006, demolished it in 2007, but then had to shut down construction of its ambitious Echelon project in 2008 when the local economy tanked. It’s been a Strip eyesore ever since.

Maybe Genting can lift the curse of Tony Cornero and finally get that piece of property humming once again. An entire state is certainly rooting for that to happen.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at gknapp@klastv.com.