|By Sallie L. Gaines, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
CHICAGO--May 24, 1998 --Since "Bugsy" Siegel's Flamingo opened in 1946, Las Vegas has been synonymous with the biggest names in entertainment and hospitality -- Sinatra to Elvis to Willie, Hilton to Holiday Inn to Hard Rock.
All the big names, it seems, but one: Hyatt. All the glitter, not to mention cash, in Las Vegas has never been able to attract that venerable hotel chain, part of the holdings of Chicago's Pritzker family.
Until now, that is, as the resort town of Lake Las Vegas shapes up 17 miles east of the Strip.
So what does Lake Las Vegas have that its namesake lacks?
First, there's water. The focal point of the 2,245-acre development is an irregular-shaped, man-made lake that's more than two miles long and has 10 miles of precious shoreline.
"It is the most gorgeous parcel of land that I can imagine," said Doug Geoga, president of Hyatt Hotels Corp. in Chicago. "The lake itself is an incredible, non-duplicatable amenity."
A bonus is that the surrounding land is owned by the federal government, so the view of low, craggy mountains isn't likely to be supplanted by subdivisions. The lake, with its guaranteed views, snagged Hyatt.
Second, it's not Las Vegas.
"This is an opportunity to do a destination resort in a place where a lot of our customers are not interested in holding their meetings," Geoga said. "The Strip is not an attractive meeting venue for a lot of people. The Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas will be an attractive meeting venue for an attractive number of customers."
Hyatt plans to open its 500-room hotel in the first quarter of 2000. But when the entire Lake Las Vegas is completed -- a process that developers say will take at least a decade and cost up to $5 billion -- it will be more than a Hyatt resort and some water.
Chief developer Transcontinental Corp., a privately held company based in Santa Barbara, Calif., envisions up to four resorts. Besides Hyatt, Grand Bay Hotels of Miami has agreed to develop and manage one.
In addition, Grand Bay, which is half owned by Carnival Corp., is building the centerpiece of a "village" at the bottom edge of the lake, said Henry Gluck, co-chairman of Transcontinental Properties, the Transcontinental subsidiary in charge of the project.
The Grand Bay development within the village will include a hotel, shops, spa and condominiums. But that's only one piece of the final plan, Gluck said.
"The entire development will have specialty restaurants and boutiques and the setting is very similar to what you see in Portofino, Italy -- small cobblestone streets," Gluck said.
While developers and retailers haven't signed on yet, Gluck isn't worried. Before hooking up with Lake Las Vegas, Gluck was chairman and chief executive of Caesar's World in Las Vegas. When he made the switch, he brought along Sheldon Gordon, credited with developing the wildly successful Forum Shops at Caesar's, which gave tourists another way to leave their money in Las Vegas.
And, of course, there will be a discreet casino.Three golf courses are planned for the resort side of the lake. One, designed by Jack Nicklaus, recently opened.
The opposite side of the lake, called SouthShore, is reserved for homeowners. And buyers aren't waiting to see how the tourist side shapes up. Already about 50 houses -- mansions, really -- are finished, with another 30 or so in progress. A majority of the 350-plus home sites are sold.
Lake Las Vegas sells only the lots, which range from about $250,000 to $2 million. Buyers find their own builders.
By the end of summer, developers will have "courtyard villas" (a fancy word for townhouses) and "Venetian beach houses" ready for sale. The latter will have multi-story views of the lake and include stairs to take owners to their private launch site on the water.
Buyers take note: No gasoline engines will be allowed on the lake, so the launches will be for "friendly" craft like small sailboats or sailboards. Electric engines are OK, so homeowners can take small powercraft out in search of the rainbow trout, large-mouth bass and other fish that have been introduced to the lake.
A Jack Nicklaus - designed golf course, which has been open for a year, is intertwined with the houses. A beach and yacht club is scheduled to open in July for SouthShore homeowners.
Some private residences will be built on the opposite side of the lake, beyond the resorts. Sites are under development, but aren't yet for sale, Gluck said. These sites will be at higher elevations than the resorts or golf courses, he said.
"On some of the lots you can even see Lake Mead, the Las Vegas skyline and the Arizona Mountains."
While developers dutifully compiled information on local school districts, they say buyers so far haven't come to Lake Las Vegas to live, but to vacation. Few of the huge houses are second homes; most are third, fourth and even fifth homes, a spokeswoman said.
The dream of Lake Las Vegas is more than 30 years old. One man, J. Carlton Adair, began buying up land near Lake Mead and got approval from the Colorado River Commission to create a man-made lake. Eventually the federal government swapped his land for what's now the Lake Las Vegas site.
Adair went bankrupt in 1972, and the site changed hands several times with no work accomplished; one problem was that various government bodies had second thoughts about allowing a private developer to siphon water from nearby Lake Mead, and final approval did not come until 1989. That year, Transcontinental acquired the site.
But in 1989 the economy was beginning to slacken, and the ensuing minor recession prompted Transcontinental to move slowly. By 1995, the overall plan was shaping up, and Gluck signed on.
Geoga said Hyatt didn't wait to see how the residential side shaped up before committing to its $130 million project; the two sides of the lake are targeting different markets, he said.
"I hope we'll be a good neighbor. I would hope they (homeowners) will use our restaurants, but it's not a big part of the business plan."
Other factors drove Hyatt's decision to join Lake Las Vegas, he said. Chief among them: longstanding business relationships with Transcontinental Chairman Ronald F. Boeddeker and his real estate partners, Texas brothers Sid and Lee Bass.
Hyatt has "strong business and personal relationships" with all three men, Geoga said. "It is easy, and a pleasure, to be in business with them again."
In building the hotel, Hyatt will partner with Woodbine Development of Dallas -- another longstanding business relationship. The two companies have worked together on a number of Hyatt projects, including the hotel at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport and Hyatt Regency hotels in Dallas and San Antonio.
Basic economics play a role, too. Hyatt is building because it saw a demand for luxury desert resorts, and this market isn't interested in a casino-hotel in Las Vegas itself, Geoga said.
The typical hotel on the Strip is driven by casino revenues; Hyatt envisions a resort getaway at which a casino is "an amenity," not the main attraction.
Because the philosophies are so different, Lake Las Vegas should not be considered a substitute for Las Vegas itself, Geoga said.
"It isn't the reality that this project is an alternative to, in lieu of, or a competitor of the properties that are on the Strip," he said. "We are not wooing customers away from the Strip.
"They are resort customers who are primarily interested in high-end resort experiences -- golf, spas, etc. They are not choosing to come here instead of the Strip. They're probably choosing to come here instead of other destinations -- a Tucson, a Scottscale, a Palm Springs."
With that in mind, the Hyatt at Lake Las Vegas will look nothing like what visitors to the Strip see: "You will see an entry like you'd expect of a Hyatt -- a multiple-level lobby that overlooks the lake. You will not have any illusions, any uncertainty about whether you are at a destination resort or on the Strip."
On the other hand, Lake Las Vegas is only 17 miles from the Strip, which Geoga calls a plus for some resort guests. First, it means a major airport is nearby. Second, resort visitors will have "the opportunity to visit the unique features of Las Vegas without having to live in them."
He stresses that's not meant as a putdown of Las Vegas -- nor is Hyatt's
long absence from the gambling mecca.
(c) 1998, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.