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Stratosphere

[The Strip Sense]

With the Sahara closing, the Stratosphere faces an identity crisis

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The loss of the Sahara leaves the Stratosphere stranded.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Decay Alley was coming back into view as Frank Riolo and I concluded lunch last week on the 106th floor of the Stratosphere, aka the Top of the World restaurant. The dining room takes about an hour to make a full revolution, and we were almost back where we had started. We took a break from our chatter and gazed down sadly, quietly, almost mournfully.

Once upon a time, you’d assume that Decay Alley referred to the tower’s Downtown-wardly vista that encompasses dodgy Naked City and the least glamorous segments of Las Vegas Boulevard. But the blight in those areas is so commonplace and expected as to be unremarkable. That variety of downtrodden urbanism is perpetual and not unique to this city.

The view Riolo and I took as we finished up is something you just don’t see anywhere else. Below us were several blocks of economic misery on an epic scale: a gleaming, abandoned, 60-story Fontainebleau; the weathered, see-through frame of a stalled 4,000-room Echelon; gigantic blank rectangles of land where great promises of development go indefinitely unfulfilled. And now, as of just a few days earlier, the latest addition to this hit parade stood to our bottom left: the doomed Sahara, slated to shutter in May.

“Nobody likes to look out and see abandoned buildings and empty plots of land,” said a pensive Riolo, the CEO for Stratosphere owner American Casino & Entertainment Properties LLC. “It’s not good for anyone.”

It’s a wonder he doesn’t occasionally feel compelled to fling himself off his tower. When he took over in 2008, a few months before America and Las Vegas’ financial card houses collapsed, the Stratosphere could reasonably have been expected to enjoy a major resurgence almost by default. The center of Strip gravity, it would seem, was destined to move north again with all of these new projects due to open. They were, as Riolo puts it, “well-positioned.”

Now it’s unclear if the Stratosphere is even on the Strip at all. The argument has been made on many blogs that once the Sahara perishes, the Stratosphere is even further stranded away from the action.

“I’m certainly concerned about it,” he said. “It’s not Downtown, it’s not the Strip and it’s not a locals property. We try to run it as a hybrid.”

The thing is, the loss of the venerable Rat Pack haunt comes right as Riolo was finally starting to see a real turnaround thanks to some judicious spending. Though the gaming press has carefully documented every step of the resurgent Tropicana’s revival for a year or more, the Stratosphere took many by surprise in December when officials began marketing 900 handsomely refurbished rooms with flat-screen TVs and sleeker furnishings. Intriguingly, Riolo said the down economy made it affordable to buy all the new furniture from Vegas manufacturers, a point of pride.

The new rooms fetch $15 more on weekdays and $20 more on weekends than the rest of the resort’s offerings, he added. What’s more, the folks who stay in them on average gamble about $90 per day, double the typical wagering of guests in the older rooms.

Of course, as any CEO would, Riolo sees two sides to the Sahara closure. It’s not good that there’s no foot traffic in the vicinity, that the Las Vegas Monorail will now be a train to almost nowhere, that there’ll be yet another huge dark building in the neighborhood. But he is making an offer for the Sahara’s database of 125,000 players in hopes that converting even 2,000 of them into consistent customers “would have a significant effect on our property.”

“The upside is that those people who liked the Sahara, who liked being at the north end of the Strip, who liked not being at an MGM or Harrah’s property may choose us because of the things we’ve been doing to elevate the experience and move ourselves to the top of the value market,” he said as we spun away from Decay Alley again. “Time will tell if the positives outweigh the negatives. Either way, it’s tough.”

Follow Steve on Twitter at TheStripPodcast or head to VegasHappensHere.com for his blog and weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. E-mail him at SteveFriess@aol.com.
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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