Las Vegas is known for big gambles but its biggest gamble yet is opening in phases starting this week in the middle of Las Vegas Blvd.
CityCenter has been under construction for years. It's $1.2 billion over budget and has the world's attention since it's partially owned by the government of Dubai.
The behemoth project was started by MGM Mirage. But after the company ran into financial problems, putting CityCenter in jeopardy, the investing arm of the Dubai government, called Dubai World, came to the rescue and formed a joint venture. MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren admits that getting the $8.5 billion project finished was a feat in itself.
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"With everything that's happened in the United States, that's happened to our company, that's happened globally, to be able to deliver this product on time is remarkable," Murren said, talking to ABC News while sitting in a bar at one of CityCenter's new hotels, called Vdara.
But questions arose this week when Dubai World, a once unstoppable force in real estate and investing, announced it couldn't make debt payments. Executives at CityCenter claim Dubai World's problems have no impact on their Las Vegas property.
"The joint venture between MGM Mirage and Dubai World is fully funded. All of Dubai World's money is already in the joint venture," explained Murren.
A Different Kind of Casino Complex
CityCenter looks like a piece of a downtown skyline dropped in the middle of the Vegas Strip between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo casinos. Its high rises look more like futuristic office buildings than hotels and casinos. Gone are the glitzy light up signs and the themed properties so prevalent in this town. Architects were tasked with building a city within a city that would be different and eco-friendly. They hoped in the process it would attract a more high-end clientele.
"The architecture speaks for itself," said Paul Berry, vice president of hotel operations at Aria, CityCenter's only casino/hotel. "You walk in, you see clean, simple lines. You'll see sedated colors. Lots of natural light."
Many of the building materials are natural or recycled. Most of the project, including the 4,000 hotel rooms at the Aria, just got heralded with gold status in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System.
Vdara Hotel, which started welcoming guests Wednesday, is totally non-smoking and non-gaming, which is a rarity among the smoke-filled properties along the heart of "The Strip."
Aria, which will allow smoking in most of the casinos and in some rooms, is using a state-of-the-art exhaust system to reduce smoke. They've even installed ventilation systems at the bottom of slot machines to suck smoke-filled air out and replace it with fresh air.
Critics say CityCenter is too big and too expensive during the poor economy, but even those critics can't deny what the project is doing to boost the local economy in Las Vegas.
The city is leading the nation in foreclosures and job losses, so it was welcome news when CityCenter announced it would hire 12,000 workers.
"When they called me to say I was hired, I was like a little 5-year-old shaking and stuff," said Delores Witherspoon, who was let go from her job months ago and just got hired at CityCenter as a security officer at Vdara. "When they said I got the job, I couldn't believe it. I hung up the phone and I was so excited because I knew things were changing."
CityCenter executives say they received tens of thousands of job applications and recount stories of some applicants arriving with their children and crying out of happiness when they learned they were being hired.
Despite all the joys of job hires and grand openings, there are still big questions here if Las Vegas can sustain such a big project in this economy.
But Murren said critics are going to be surprised at the success here.
"The economy is getting better. It's not a year ago, it's now," he said. "What would be a better catalyst to bringing people back to Las Vegas but this?"