Former Nevada U.S. Senator Harry Reid’s name officially went on Las Vegas International Airport just two weeks before his death at age 82 on Dec. 28.
Just as fittingly, the busy boulevard that heads westward from the Las Vegas Strip into the CityCenter complex just south of the Bellagio also could be named for Reid because, without his intervention during the dark days of the Great Recession, the $8 billion project that helped refine The Strip and arguably opened the way for a redefined Las Vegas and a state with billions in sports betting might not have not happened.
By now, it is an oft-told tale of how the then-MGM Mirage (the current MGM Resorts International), in partnership with Dubai World, saw its ambitious project of what initially included seven buildings was about to be smothered by lack of financing as the price tag crept from about $4 billion to the $8 billion range.
In 2009, Vegas was being hammered by the recession harder than any city in America with a trifecta of economic calamities: Skyrocketing unemployment, plummeting tourist visitations and a massive collapse of real estate prices. Construction of all types came to an abrupt halt all over the Las Vegas Valley, lenders were running for cover, and no one had any idea whether a project like CityCenter would generate enough business to justify its cost.
It was believed that MGM Mirage might have to pull the plug on construction, which would eliminate the jobs of 22,000 workers and leave the Strip with a collection of massive concrete, steel and glass tombstones as reminders of a played-out city. Not to mention a possible Chapter 11 for MGM Mirage, a major employer.
At the time, Reid’s intervention with banks to keep the money flowing on the project was called persuasive cajoling by the powerful top Democrat in the Senate (to be fair, then-Nevada Sen. John Ensign also was an advocate). However, about a decade later, Reid ‘fessed up to interviewer Jon Ralston saying he outright threatened banks.
“No one in their right mind would have done what I did,” Reid said in the interview. “No one would have done that.”
And so, CityCenter was saved and the construction continued. It opened in late 2009. Since then, much has happened with the project that its original dreamer, the late Terry Lanni, conceived of as an urban enclave in the midst of the famous tourist corridor. It did not turn out that way exactly.
CityCenter’s component parts don’t have the connectivity that Lanni imagined. Dubai World is out of the deal. MGM Resorts International has shed some of the buildings to new owners while its BetMGM online operation grows. One planned skyscraper, the Harmon, had to be torn down because of construction problems. And one resort changed its nameplate: The elegant Mandarin Oriental became a Waldorf Astoria.
However, whether CityCenter realized its original ambition or not would miss the point about what it engendered. The complex changed the projected identity of Las Vegas from an adult Disneyland to a modern, sophisticated, even futuristic cityscape. With CityCenter an architectural and tourism anchor, with real money online casinos and other projects became imaginable and feasible, such as the nearby T-Mobile Arena (where the NHL Golden Knights play), along with the attendant gateway pedestrian promenade, called the Park.
It’s merely speculation whether an arena would have been built and whether the city’s first major league pro sports team, the Golden Knights, would have landed in Vegas, or whether other subsequent events would have occurred, such as the move of the NFL Oakland Raiders to Vegas along with the construction of Allegiant Stadium, without the antecedent completion of CityCenter.
But what is clear is that momentum in Vegas following the opening of CityCenter has been astounding. On the horizon is another possible move of MLB’s Oakland A’s to Vegas, and the likely arrival of a Major League Soccer franchise.
Then there are two major events, both firsts for Vegas. The West Regional of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is set for T-Mobile in 2023 and the biggest catch, the Super Bowl, comes to Allegiant in 2024.
Not to overplay the importance of sports to a place’s identity, but such things are the hallmarks of a major city, into which Las Vegas is evolving. Would time and economic tides eventually have brought all this to Las Vegas even without CityCenter’s influence as a course-changing project? Perhaps.
However, there are few in Las Vegas who would want to know what might have happened without Harry Reid being there.