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CityCenter: Evaluating Las Vegas’ Biggest Ever Gamble

MGM Resorts’ vision of the future has reached the age of reason

CityCenter: Evaluating Las Vegas’ Biggest Ever Gamble

PART I- 2006-2009

MGM’s CityCenter has turned thirteen, in certain cultures observing a period of reflection as the subject leaves infancy and enters maturity.

Enabled by the corporate conquests of Kirk Kerkorian’s MGM, the story of the company’s Las Vegas centerpiece is one of unprecedented ambition, innovation, daring and risk. It also led the company to the precipice of oblivion, before rebounding to record performance.

It is only now that we can dare ask the question, has Las Vegas’ biggest gamble finally paid off?

The Pride of Las Vegas

Surveying Las Vegas Boulevard in Summer 2004, there were few that doubted Kirk Kerkorian’s reputation as the master dealmaker. Under the eye of Terry Lanni, MGM had completed the acquisition of Mirage Resorts, assimilating Steve Wynn’s legacy under Kerkorian’s umbrella, including the Bellagio, the crown jewel of Las Vegas. Furthermore, the company had recently announced plans for the $7.9 billion takeover of Mandalay Resorts, giving the newly named, MGM Mirage, control of the majority of megaresorts built over the previous decade.

After the acquisition of Mirage and Mandalay, the company had absorbed some of the most experienced and capable executives in the history of the industry, with decades of construction and operating nous, notably in Bobby Baldwin, Bill McBeath and Bill Smith, all of whom had been crucial players on Wynn’s journey.

Jim Murren, former MGM CEO

Soon after the company disposed of non-core assets, including the Golden Nugget properties, and assorted regional assets, the challenge was how to maximize the opportunity on the parcel of land at the center of Las Vegas Boulevard, on the former site of the Dunes and Boardwalk hotels.

Leading the charge was Jim Murren, who unlike most of the corporate leadership that had started in hospitality, had forged a career in Wall Street, joining the company to advise Kerkorian on his ambitious M&A plans. He joined MGM in 1998, rising through the company, finally serving as CEO. Unlike many casino executives, Murren had studied art history and urban planning, and was the prime visionary behind Project CityCenter. It was to cost $4 billion.

The well-travelled, erudite Murren declared, “(CityCenter) appeals to people that have already come here, but it will also attract people who have heretofore no interest in Las Vegas, who are worldly, who travel to great cities, recognize superior architecture and design, and seek out galleries, museums, and public spaces that have significance.”

Starchitects Align

Project CityCenter was to be different from anything seen in Las Vegas. There was to be no pirates, no volcanoes and certainly no gondolas. There were also none of the established casino architects that had spent decades crafting environments to resonate with gambling customers.

AM Stern, EEK and Cooper Robertson submitted conceptual masterplans, with Gensler partnering with the in-house design and development team to run the project.

Bill Smith, who then led the MGM Mirage Design group, imagined the project as a “city within a city” inspired by urban planning in major U.S. cities, with distinct areas and feels.

In a phrase coined by Stefan Al, CityCenter was to be Las Vegas’ premier example of “Starchitecture.” Where once Las Vegas’ architecture was derided, the likes of Daniel Libeskind, Rafael Viñoly, Caesar Pelli and Sir Norman Foster, architects behind some of the world’s most iconic buildings, were engaged to lead selected design elements. None had designed a casino or worked in Las Vegas previously.

As the project broke ground on 3rd of April 2006, MGM’s stock price was $43. The project was financed predominantly with an existing credit agreement with Bank of America and cash generated by the recent asset disposals. Additional capital could be raised by selling condos within the development and ongoing operational profits by the company.  The project budget had grown to $7 billion.

Despite owning half of the Strip, MGM had only built and opened the two MGM Grand properties; the first MGM Grand (renamed Bally’s and now the Horseshoe) in 1973, and the “green” MGM Grand, which opened in 1993. But the enlarged MGM Mirage team had plenty of development chops.

The construction program was as sophisticated and innovative was it was ambitious.

When the development team first met, there was a whiteboard and the opening date of December 1, 2009. The architects and MGM team continually iterated to meet the project vision, as set out by Murren and translated into an operating resort by Baldwin.

Some of the even more outrageous designs ultimately made way for merely the grandiose; Aria the centerpiece casino resort, featuring 4,004 rooms. Originally conceived as privately owned condo-hotel, Vdara a 1,495 suite property to the north-west of the campus. The Mandarin Oriental a 47-story tower designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, with 225 apartments and 392 hotel rooms on the south-east of the site. The Murphy/Jahn designed Veer Towers contains 670 apartments and sit adjacent to Crystals Mall. The retail area was originally conceived as an urban pedestrian hub, however as the project developed, concerns emerged over the Las Vegas heat, especially summer. The final design of Crystals, with protruding angular points, is unmistakably Libeskind.

Although collaborative, there was certainly significant individual contributions and ongoing refinements from the leadership team, making the project less a conventional “design and build”, rather a “design as build” project, which escalated costs monthly.

A senior executive in the construction process observed, “It was one thing building the Mirage, Treasure Island and Bellagio, which were generally formulaic and conceptually understood. City Center, with multiple architects, contractors and unique construction elements was an entirely different challenge. At some points there were over 35 cranes at work, with design points in constant revision. It was a project like none before and none since.”

However, it was matters outside the influence of the project that were to truly unsettle the newly formed foundations.

Crisis

By mid-2007, Las Vegas was booming. The housing market had hit record peaks. Construction cranes dominated the city’s skyline, not just at CityCenter. As the calendar headed to late 2007, MGM’s stock price peaked at $99. The cautious gave warning of an overheated debt market, but MGM had apparently mitigated their risk, entering a joint venture with Dubai World who agreed a $2.7 billion investment for 50 percent of the project.

The ink on the deal was still wet, when on the 15th of September, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers triggered US financial system to collapse.

To many, Las Vegas was at the heart of the crashed sub-prime residential mortgage-backed securities market, thus making CityCenter the center of the epicenter.

MGM’s dream became potential nightmare that could bring down the entire company. It needed cash, fast. MGM sold Treasure Island to Phil Ruffin for nearly $800 million, who had pocketed over $1.2 billion from the sale of the New Frontier land only months earlier. The project budget was now $9.3 billion.

It seemed to all that Kirk Kerkorian’s grandest of Las Vegas adventures, that had survived financial crises, human tragedy and local challengers, was coming to an abrupt and disastrous end.

Despite considerations to abandon the project, Kerkorian was 100 percent committed to press on, come what may.

Crunch Time

MGM was not alone, as across the city those that had taken advantage of the relatively cheap and plentiful offers of development finance found themselves exposed. Boyd’s Echelon and Elad’s Plaza both halted development; neither opened. The Fontainebleau paused development. It sat quiet for over a decade, a cobalt and concrete monolith, punctuating the skyline as a monument to the misery of the moment.

Deutsche Bank, the primary lender to the Cosmopolitan, assumed development of that project, making the call that the best way to recover their defaulted debt was to finish the resort and sell at some point in the future.

Wynn and Sands completed their second towers. Both had greater exposure to the lucrative Macau market, which provided a lifeline to those U.S. companies that has been awarded concessions. Sands’ Venetian’s third tower remains unbuilt as the company reinvested in the Chinese enclave and in Singapore. Caesars Palace completed its Octavius Tower, but the corporate parent could not sustain their LBO, and ultimately fell into bankruptcy, reemerging after a punitive restructuring process.

Throughout the industry, 2009 was proving a challenging year. For example, whereas MGM reported gross revenues of $7.2 billion in 2008, it was to report revenues of $5.9 billion in 2009. Casino companies just weren’t just making a loss, they were hemorrhaging cash.

To make matters worse for MGM, construction flaws in the boutique Harmon Tower, had rendered that element of the project structurally unsafe. Both MGM and builder, Perini, litigated. MGM had spent $275 million on the tower by the time it was mothballed. (The dispute was settled in 2014).

On March 6, 2009, MGM stock fell to a low of $1.87.

How close MGM came to turning off the machines and closing the doors may actually be under-appreciated; the gambler was out of cash, his bankroll exhausted, the pockets were empty, the bank was closed, and the paychecks had stopped. And as costs continued to rise and the stock price fell, joint venture partner Dubai World started litigation, suing MGM for mismanagement.

Murren had two options; to do whatever it takes to find $475 million and keep both MGM and CityCenter alive or take the company into bankruptcy. As any responsible CEO would do, he hoped for the best and prepared for the worst.

Kerkorian who had lost millions, if not billions of value as markets crashed, remained a supportive and reassuring voice to those executives under intense pressure, perhaps more concerned for their personal welfare as he was about the company’s peril.

The 24-hour deadline to refinancing ticked away, hour by hour, minute by minute.

On one telephone line was the legal team in NYC, who had dispatched lawyers in taxis, running bank to bank to sign-off on renewed lending terms that were awaiting approval. On the other line was the second legal team, readily prepared to file for Chapter 11. Two press releases were prepared, one for success, one for bankruptcy. Construction workers were ready with metal fences to encircle the properties and those leading the construction on-site were instructed to take documents from the office to their homes, in anticipation that the project be terminated.

As one participant close to the blue-heat of the moment told me, “It was like a movie, we didn’t know which way it was going to go.”

With his last dollar on earth, the gambler placed it on the roulette table.

With minutes to go before the 2 p.m. deadline, MGM’s number came in. The gambling angels had saved the day.

We now know the name of MGM’s gambling angel; he was called Harry. Shortly before his passing, the extent of Senator Harry Reid’s intervention became clear, he had directly and personally intervened with MGM’s banks to ensure that the company would survive and CityCenter would be completed. Why did Reid, in his position as the Senate Majority Leader in the middle of a financial crisis, intervene to save MGM as others failed?

Perhaps the potential for tens of thousands of Nevadans becoming unemployed and the State’s largest taxpayer going under was of primary concern, which may have threatened to the financial position of the State. Maybe the 50-year friendship between Reid and Kerkorian had played a role. Maybe a conversation between the two was had, maybe none took place, but Reid needed no encouragement.

As Reid explained to the Nevada Independent in 2019,

“No one in their right mind would have done what I did…. But what I did there, I called presidents of banks, threatened them any way I could. I called the emir of Dubai or whatever the hell it was.”

Dubai World’s litigation ended.

MGM received financial assistance and avoided bankruptcy.

CityCenter progressed to eventual completion.

PART II – 2009-Present
Opening

The ribbon cutting ceremony for Vdara took place as originally planned, on December 1, 2009, with Aria, the centerpiece of CityCenter, 16 days later.

In terms of pure scale, nothing in the history of Las Vegas had ever come close. For those with an eye on casino history, standing next to Jim Murren on opening day was 89-year-old Melvin Wolzinger, probably the least known giant of modern Las Vegas, but one ever-present at ringside for the previous sixty years.

Mel Wolzinger and Kirk Kerkorian had a shared history, both flying planes in World War II.

Whereas Kerkorian made Beverley Hills home, Wolzinger came to Las Vegas, opened a slot route and local casinos, notably Ernie’s Bar on Rancho. Wolzinger was one of the first backers of Steve Wynn when he invested in The Golden Nugget. He remained a board member of Mirage Resorts and trusted confidante to Wynn until the company was acquired by MGM in 2000 to form MGM Mirage, playing a crucial role in enabling that deal. After the transaction, he joined MGM’s board, and alongside has lifelong friend, Kirk Kerkorian, was made Director Emeritus of the company.

On opening, Wolzinger told the Las Vegas Review Journal, “Twenty-five years ago, if somebody came to us with this, we would have shot ’em. When they first brought it to the board, everyone was skeptical. But it’s unbelievable. Everything that Bobby Baldwin said he’d do, he did. I’m glad we did it. It will be a good thing for the city. It will put a lot of people to work.”

However outstanding the architecture and thought-provoking the art, CityCenter was not the immediate success that MGM needed.

Alan Feldman, the veteran MGM executive who had opened properties for both Wynn and MGM reflected on the period, “Opening CityCenter was like opening any other property, things didn’t work, but things don’t work in every property. The customer response was favorable, but we missed the mark on some elements, notably with placing such an emphasis on technology. We opened without a marquee in front of the building, believing the dramatic architecture would convey the message.”

Aria eventually launched a 250 ft. tall, 65 ft. wide marquee in April 2013. The 10,000 sq. ft. LED screen was the largest in the world.

The original appreciation of Las Vegas’ architecture promoted by Venturi, Brown and Izenour, brought forward the thesis that the external design of the casinos illustrated the experience that sat within; an architectural billboard, so to speak. The shining glass and modernized design promised a contemporary urbanism, found in the world’s leading global cities. However, with much of the unprecedented budget spent on design, technology and interior finishing, and the need to get the open to deadline, perhaps the offering was not as urban contemporary as the exterior suggested.

Rival casino architects were quick to offer their opinions. One privately believed that “the property was clinical, sterile and boring.”

Another felt that it was “the best casino planned by people that design airports. Technically the flow and design are great; it is easy to find the exits.”

The CityCenter architects created iconic structures but may have been somewhat haughty in their failure to consider the needs of both the employees and the customers, in particular gamblers.

Anecdotally, as MGM’s casino marketing team moved players from The Bellagio to Aria, many were uncomfortable with the new, modern offering and requested to return to the environment that they knew and liked.

The joint venture with Dubai World also posed a problem for the casino marketing team, how to manage established customers that gambled at existing properties where MGM took 100 percent of their losses, versus playing at Aria where that revenue was shared with their partner.

Another example of a misstep was that customer research showed that people preferred to stay in a corner room, so at Aria a corner was built into each room, adding significant cost to the construction budget with little tangible upside. The in-room technology was challenging for many, especially older guests, who were used to the intuitive offering of other resorts.

The restaurant offering felt generic as many of the offerings were iterations from other MGM properties, with few, if any, changing the dynamic of the market; only five of the original 23 at the CityCenter complex remain today.

In Aria, the Light Group operated the nightclub, Haze, was small compared to Wynn’s XS that opened in 2008, and as the nightclub boom came to town, the tighter economics precluded the big-name, big-salary DJs from performing there.

The showroom featured Cirque du Soleil’s Viva Elvis. It failed to make its second anniversary and was replaced with Zarkana, which itself closed in 2016. The showroom was subsequently demolished to make way for additional convention space.

Crystals, once envisioned as an open aired throughfare, became an impediment to pedestrian access to the casino, with all foot traffic directed past a parade of luxury retail stores, that only a select few could afford to do more than browse.

One of the housekeeping team, that had spent many years at Bellagio and opened Aria, explained her experience.

“At Bellagio we all knew what we were doing, at Aria it was a mess,” she said. “Because the layout was so complicated, it took a long time to find the rooms. It took a long time to understand all the technology, and the guests pulled the curtains and sheers instead of using the iPad (tablet control panel) so would break them.” After 5 years at Aria, she returned to the Bellagio.

But most pressing were the design-flaws. Who would have thought that building a south-facing 57-floor, concave glass structure in the desert would reflect the Nevada sun, causing a “solar convergence event”? As it was colloquially known, apparent evidence of the “Vdara death-ray” melting plastic cups poolside was displayed and discussed across various media platforms.

Remedial works were required.

And at the Veer Towers, one resident wrote, “The building is subject to a loud, sustained whistling noise that occurs any time the desert wind whips past the building. This sound makes living in the apartment impossible and forces MGM… to put any resident who complains in the adjacent Vdara Hotel & Spa for a free stay.”

Remedial works were required.

On December 15, 2010, an unwanted birthday present for CityCenter arrived; The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas opened next door in direct competition to Aria. Designed by noted casino architect Brad Friedmutter and Rockwell Group, it was newer, shinier and was immediately popular with the same Gen X customers that Aria sought to attract. The F&B program featuring branded and celebrity chef inspired restaurants from major international cities, many new market entrants. TAO Group operated massive Marquee nightclub and dayclub, and the iconic chandelier bar, alongside apartment sized room product, led the Cosmopolitan to capture the zeitgeist of new Las Vegas in a way Aria did not. It was impossible not to compare the two.

Changing Course

“Everyone on the team knew that what we projected in 2005 and 2006 wasn’t going to happen, market had changed. When we opened, the recession was in full bloom, the convention business had dipped and people were spending less”, recalled Feldman.

Bill McBeath served as president of Wynn’s Treasure Island, when his peers were beginning management roles, and later The Mirage and Bellagio. McBeath’s challenge as first president and open Aria was a challenge indeed.

The first changes were at the sports book, switching out the snack bar to pizza, the Gold Lounge and Deuce, both operated by Light Group didn’t become the destination lounges as planned, and the buffet just wasn’t working.

After two years, McBeath left MGM and Aria in 2012 and was charged by Blackstone in 2014 to turn around their $1.7 billion acquisition of the still loss-making Cosmopolitan as CEO and president. Under his leadership, the property dramatically changed fortunes and was sold in 2021 for $5.65 billion, making it the most successful real estate transaction in history.

Bobby Baldwin, with a 40-year career operating at the highest level, opening the Mirage and Bellagio as president, and as development CEO and president of CityCenter, where no decision was made without passing his eyes, stepped back out of the corporate office and went back to the casino floor. Arguably, his final role was to be his most hands-on.

Avoiding the “chumminess” of other executives and with the focus of a top-level poker player, under Baldwin the property undertook great change. He resolved the operating kinks and brought in the highly acclaimed restaurant Carbone, opened Javier’s next to the casino floor, LA hotspot Catch was signed up and Mina’s American Fish made way for Bardot.  Hakkasan acquired the Light Group in 2014, and the new company oversaw the renovation of Haze to become Jewel in 2016 and the exit of Deuce and Gold lounges.

The casino floor saw change, with Alibi Ultra-Lounge assuming a prominent role at the heart of the property and VIP slots and high-limit areas enhanced. Aria took shape under the experienced hand of Baldwin and the die was cast for the property’s future success. After an unfortunate work accident, the man that had as much to do with the operational development of CityCenter and the internal structure of the modern casino as any other, Bobby Baldwin retired.

Baldwin was succeeded by longtime MGM executive Steve Zanella, who stewarded the property through an asset sale and Covid, instituting further change throughout, finally transferring to another MGM stalwart, Anton Nikodemus, who now oversees what is colloquially known as the Aria Campus, alongside recent addition, The Cosmopolitan.

Assessing CityCenter

In his recent Stanford case-study, “MGM Resorts International In 2018: Time for Another Reinvention,” former MGM executive Jordan Salmon recalls the challenges facing the company.

Salmon notes that in 2006, when work began on CityCenter, 40 percent of MGM’s revenue was gaming and 60 percent non-gaming, which was approximate to the Las Vegas Strip average of 38 percent gaming, 62 percent non-gaming. However, by 2016, MGM’s mix was still 39 percent gaming, 61 percent non-gaming, whereas the Strip average was 27 percent to 73 percent. MGM’s customers led that change, but the company had not responded to the trend.

It was reported that MGM had believed that Gen X’ers were on their way to Las Vegas and City Center would cater for than new demographic. In 2009, as CityCenter opened, 27 percent of visitors were under 40 years old, with an average age of 50. In 2022, that was 53 percent under 40, with an average age of 40.7.

Murren saw the need to transform MGM from a gaming to entertainment company and the repositioning of the company began. Since 2018 it has been proactive in diversifying revenues, notably with the introduction of car parking charges and other revenue enhancements. But, if MGM had the foresight to adopt the wider trends, why was that thinking not integrated into the design and programming at CityCenter, thus missing the opportunity that was to present in the subsequent decade?

The property has excelled at the conventions business. The open, bright space at Aria is differentiated from many of the other resort convention spaces and the property has proved successful in booking in convention customers and today is squarely positioned for that segment. On closer inspection, in 2006 convention visitation was 6,307,961 rising only minimally to 6,310,600 in 2016 and falling post-Covid 2022 to 4,991,500. Aria’s position has proved robust.

Aria was Las Vegas’s first LEED certified property, and resonated notably with technology firms, aligning with the modern design, quality room product and latterly, a broad range of restaurants.

If anything, CityCenter somewhat positive outcome is not just what the visionaries predicted, nor the successful adaptations made by several operating teams alone, but the structural changes within capital markets. MGM sold the real estate and went asset light.

REITS, formed in the Cigar Excise Tax Extension of 1960, are listed vehicles that hold real estate, but are advantageous compared to traditional corporations as no tax is paid prior to dividends.

MGM created spinoff MGM Growth REIT, which listed with nine MGM operated properties, but none within the CityCenter portfolio. MGM Resorts held a significant stake in the new company. MGM Growth was subsequently acquired by VICI, a REIT created from the Caesars restructuring after bankruptcy, for $17.2 billion.

At CityCenter, Ladder Capital acquired 427 condominium units at Veer Towers for a reported $119 million in 2012.

In 2016, the US’s largest retail REIT, Simon Real Estate bought Crystals for $1.13 billion and in 2018 the Cherng family acquired the 389 room Mandarin Oriental Hotel for $214 million. The new owners brought Hilton in to manage the property under their Waldorf Astoria flag.

In July 2021, MGM bought out Dubai World’s remaining interests for $2.12 billion, enabling the company to trade the Vdara and Aria on a sale-and-leaseback basis to Blackstone’s REIT for $3.9 billion. MGM is now a tenant at Aria and Vdara, paying rent at $215 million per annum.

The company also entered an operating agreement to manage the Cosmopolitan on behalf of the new real estate owners (a consortium including, Blackstone’s REIT and the Cherng family) in 2022, paying $1.6 billion for that contract.

Whether MGM ultimately recouped their total construction and investment costs for City Center by asset sales alone is unlikely, but the new structure has made the ongoing operations of the properties more streamlined and focused. Moreover, with the Cosmopolitan now part of the company’s platform, potential exists for greater integration with neighboring assets.

From Generation to Generation

On June 15, 2015, Kirk Kerkorian, who was involved with nearly every property on Las Vegas Boulevard, died aged 98. Harry Reid called their relationship “one of the special things in my life.”

Melvin Wolzinger died in June 2019, also aged 98. He was inducted into the AGA Casino Hall of Fame aged 97, the oldest recipient of this honor.

Harry Reid died in 2021 aged 82. It is appropriate that Las Vegas’s airport now bears his name, welcoming all that arrive.

If ever there was a project enabled by one generation and given to another, CityCenter is it.

Although none would have wanted it, it would be both timely and generous for MGM to commission a statue or artwork of these three leaders together for display at Aria. This would a permanent and visible recognition of their efforts in building MGM, enabling CityCenter, and more importantly, be an immortal beacon for both employees and tourists of the power of friendship and possibility.

Nearly all of the protagonists that served during the conception and development of CityCenter have departed MGM, with Baldwin retiring in 2018 and Murren stepping down as CEO in 2020.

Open for 13 years and despite the soaring architecture, evolving programming, a new financial structure, and over $400 million of annual revenues, it is premature to conclude whether the CityCenter gamble has been ultimately successful. It may prove to be when the resort turns 21 in 2030.

What we can say with confidence, is that CityCenter had a difficult childhood.

However, the foundations are strong and ongoing changes have taken the property to new levels, if not hitting the high notes that were expected.

Outside the Cosmopolitan, the bar and restaurant programming is perhaps the finest in the MGM’s Las Vegas portfolio, the nightlife component has been elevated, and convention facilities are among the best in the land.

Unlike some properties that open fully formed and have few changes, Aria’s story is one of a property that is continually evolving and improving, and with the correct guidance and nurturing, is possibly the best placed resort for growth within the next generation of Las Vegas customers.

In 2022, the company produced nearly $6.5 billion in gross profit, a number unimaginable in the lives of Kerkorian and Wolzinger.

As seen in my research of 2022, more Las Vegas visitors have stayed at Aria than anywhere else. The Cosmopolitan is second. Closer alignment between the two, under single operating ownership is a clear upside for the company and for customers.

Aria and surrounding properties, stand as a testament to what is possible in design and architecture, but also a reminder that casino development is unlike other asset classes. The most important strategic asset is not the real estate, but the customer, and within this paradigm, the design objectives should be focused to meet those customer’s needs. It is my belief that as a consequence of the complexities of this development, and the challenging financial environment during construction, this fact was sometimes forgotten.

Remedial works are ongoing.

*During this period, the company was officially titled MGM Mirage and after 2010, MGM Resorts International. MGM is used interchangeably for both.

Oliver Lovat is the CEO of The Denstone Group, that offers strategic consultancy in resort development. He was faculty at City, University of London between 2012-2020 and University College of Estate Management 2010-2015. His research topics are Las Vegas Customer Behavior and The Evolution of Competitive Strategy Within Las Vegas Casino Resorts.