Las Vegas Gambles on $8.5 Billion CityCenter

"Nightline" goes behind the scenes as flagship hotel readies for grand opening.

LAS VEGAS, Dec. 16, 2009— -- MGM-Mirage's CityCenter is possibly the biggest bet in Las Vegas' history. With four towering hotels, a casino, a high-end shopping complex and 42 restaurants and bars, it's an $8.5 billion, 18-million-square-foot behemoth and the crown jewel of the Strip.

Aria, the flagship hotel and casino in CityCenter, officially opens to the public Thursday. "Nightline" was given special access behind the scenes as the centerpiece hotel was put through the paces for its grand opening.

Readying a 61-story resort is a formidable task: vacuuming escalators, making 4,210 beds, stuffing 21,000 pillow cases, watering 182,000 plants, counting $117 million in poker chips. Fifty thousand bottles of wine and 500 live lobsters have been stocked for the opening.

CityCenter hired 12,000 people to staff the complex. The project amounted to a privately-funded stimulus package for Nevada. But in a sign of just how bad things are in the recession-battered city -- 177,000 job applications flooded in for the coveted spots.

Miguel Robledo was one of the lucky ones. He was unemployed for a year and half and burning through his 401(k) before being hired as an assistant restaurant manager at Aria.

As the clock counted down to opening day, Robledo had a whole new set of worries.

"The food is lacking a little in preparation. We didn't have the chicken wings. We are trying to scramble," he said. "If the warehouse doesn't have any then we check other restaurants."

In the halls underneath the complex, 200,000 uniforms were handed out from an automated uniform station. They have an entire alteration department busy fitting uniforms. In-house laundry was on overdrive.

Down the hall, where huge storage rooms are filled with everything from oysters to miniature bottles of booze for the in-room bars, a quality-control chef checked some of the 7,000 pounds of fresh blue tuna, to be served hours later in an appetizer dish at the restaurant's first meal.

"Let's remember everything we trained for," a restaurant manager said in a speech before service began. "Don't cut corners. Don't forget everything we told each other we were going to do. Things are going to go wrong, it's guaranteed. The fire alarm is probably going to go off. Some mistakes will happen in the kitchen. Let's do everything we can to try to catch those mistakes before they become major."

Meanwhile, the room service team was busy lining up its delivery carts with the precision of NASCAR drivers -- and taste testing their own menu.

Staff Puts Through Paces

Judith Zamora came to CityCenter straight from the unemployment line. Now, she's the executive housekeeper.

"When I got the position, I was ecstatic," she told ABC News. "I had to pull [my daughter] out of college because I couldn't afford it. She is now back in...I didn't want to have to do that, but everyone has to make sacrifices and that was our big sacrifice."

Zamora's maid service briefing had the feel of a military operation.

"Everybody's really tired. We're working like crazy. You guys been working like crazy, but we need to keep it going. We're almost to the end. Wednesday we open. Isn't that exciting?" she said to applause. "So let's keep it going today, just keep on your staff keep working with them."

Cost Overruns Nearly Buried Complex

Preparing for opening day has been an uphill battle from the start. Cost overruns nearly buried the MGM-Mirage. And their main investor, Dubai World, suffered its own financial meltdown.

Twelve months ago, MGM-Mirage's Senior Vice President Alan Feldman was worried that CityCenter would make it.

"Our bottom line will have to be altered because clearly the prices we're going to get for things aren't what they were when we started projecting things out," Feldman told ABC News in an earlier interview.

But CityCenter pushed through. It's now the most expensive privately-funded commercial project in the country. And with financing secure, Feldman is finally breathing easier.

"We have worked really hard to get to this day," he said. "This wasn't easy, and there were definitely some moments along the way where we doubted whether or not we would make it."

The casino floor is where MGM and Dubai World hope to make their money back. Gaming brings in hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Does Las Vegas Need Another Hotel?

Still, the question about CityCenter lingers: does Las Vegas need another hotel?

Executives say yes, pointing to CityCenter's differences from the many themed hotels on the strip.

"I think what the town didn't need was just another themed hotel," said Feldman. "What the town needed was to find a slightly new direction to attract people who weren't coming here."

In the midst of a steep downturn, hotels have offered bargains and value to entice visitors back to Sin City. MGM projects Las Vegas will see 38 million visitors in 2010 -- and the bet is that they'll be attracted to what the stunning CityCenter can offer.

"Vegas isn't out of the woods yet, and just having CityCenter doesn't make it so," Feldman said. "But there are some things that are very positive. Now that we are beginning to see signs that travel, business is beginning to pick up, that is the kind of momentum that we need not only for City Center but also for this community."

Three of the six towers in the CityCenter development have already opened.

12,000 employees and the cash-strapped MGM-Mirage are "all in"-- betting that their gleaming new hotel towers will show the world that Sin City's losing streak is over.