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Dissimilar landmarks — Binion’s and CityCenter — reflect today’s Las Vegas

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Binion’s on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.
Photo: John Katsilometes

Two guys approach the bar and ease into stools set under a Phillips TV whose picture is a wash of blurry color. One guy asks how to get a free bottle of beer. The bartender, wearing a black shirt with a martini stitched on the back and Velcro wrap around his right forearm, says they need to play $10 in the video machines set in front of them. The two guys lift $10 bills from their wallets and gingerly shove them into the machine and poke at the screen until they find video blackjack.

The bartender pulls two bottles of Miller Lite from a trough filled with ice and sets them in front of the two gamblers. He backs off and grins, shaking his head as he watches these two guys methodically play one credit – 25 cents – per hand. Never have so few played so slowly for so little.

This was Monday night, at Binion’s on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. Those two could still be playing that same $10 and nursing those Miller Lites, for all I know. I wound back to Binion’s on Monday because the hotel announced earlier in the day it was closing its 365-room hotel tower. I expected I might find a morose casino filled with dour employees, and I’m not sure that wasn’t the case at Binion’s. But it’s so hard to tell what the mood is in some of these downtown hotels – they’re far more nitty-gritty than those on the Strip. There is far less whoop-it-up going on downtown, and certainly Monday’s vibe at Binion’s was far from celebratory.

But in scouring the casino, I learned that the hotel rooms were offering such low rates -- $19 many nights for rooms it costs at least $31 per night to maintain – that it was almost constantly operating at a loss. Even though 100 employees would lose their jobs, the feeling around the casino floor seemed to be that the guests who paid those cheap rates and loped into the hotel lugging giant coolers full of food and drink would not be missed. That 365 total, too, is misleading, as many rooms were in such shoddy condition they couldn’t be occupied at any rate -- and now is not the time to start investing in room renovation at Binion’s. One-hundred employees being let go is bad, yes, but not compared to the hundreds lopped by larger companies all over the valley over the past year or so.

The famed casino is still intact and expects to remain in operation for the foreseeable future. The crowd at Benny’s Bullpen Sports Bar and Cigar Lounge is busy with Saints and Patriots fans. This place is so magical, it even has a server named “Margarita” working the floor during the Monday Night Football game. I’m encouraged to go take a photo, but not a flash photo, of the million-dollar cash display. Check out the famed poker room. Enjoy a $5 hamburger at Binion’s Café, right there at the counter. A slice of cheese is 50 cents more.

We do not need a hotel, they say, to keep in play.

Maybe it’s denial, or maybe it’s just the cowboy grit so ingrained in Binion’s by it’s founder, Benny Binion. When you’re in Binion’s, you’re comfortably insulated from reality, even from the dazzling multibillion-dollar fortress being introduced just a few miles away in the middle of the Strip.

**

CityCenter: Vdara Ribbon Cutting

It is Tuesday morning, the day the ribbon at Vdara will be cut by MGM Mirage executives, signaling the official opening of CityCenter’s non-gaming jewel of a hotel. That it is one of the largest LEED-certified projects in the country is evident by the ribbon itself, which is made of pulverized and recycled soda bottles.

You sit at the base of this hotel and look up at the high reaching, curvaceous, structure that gleams with mirrored silver and you almost can’t believe you are there. At 57 stories tall, Vdara is literally dizzying, and you remember seeing the model of CityCenter at the Bellagio Conservatory for the first time, and you feel like a Lilliputian sitting down in the center of the actual, finished buildings.

This is the new Vegas, where we just plow through the Great Recession, which impeccably groomed MGM Mirage Chief Executive Officer Jim Murren said during his time at the mic as he addressed dozens of media members and VIPs. No one could predict what the economic trends would be when CityCenter broke ground four years ago, but here it is, opening as scheduled, bold and beautiful in the winter of ’09.

The Vdara Hotel and Spa grand opening press conference and ribbon cutting at CityCenter on Dec. 1, 2009.

The Vdara Hotel and Spa grand opening press conference and ribbon cutting at CityCenter on Dec. 1, 2009.

It seems we’re occupying a different planet than a night earlier on Fremont Street, though we’re really in the same city. It seems that way until Bobby Baldwin steps before the crowd, a man who embodies both old and new Vegas. Baldwin, with the locally fabled nickname “The Owl,” was president of Golden Nugget from 1984-’87. He also won the World Series of Poker main event at -- Binion’s Horseshoe -- in 1978 and is still friends with Benny’s son Jack. On the Strip, Baldwin has operated Mirage and Bellagio, both at the time of opening. Today he is president and chief executive of CityCenter.

After the ceremonial news conference, “The Owl” is asked about the announcement at Binion’s, where he made history 30 years ago as the then-youngest WSOP champ ever. Is City Center and its 6,800 hotel rooms simply too big for the city, particularly lower-level hotels like Binion’s, to absorb?

“I think that Las Vegas is really about evolution. The marketplace grows continuously, or has, for decades and decades,” he says. “But there are businesses that have lasted a long time that eventually are outdated, and they close and new buildings open in other locations and take their place. I think that’s what keeps Las Vegas on the edge and gives it its great appeal.”

Some forget, but not Baldwin, that CityCenter is actually located on the property of the Dunes hotel and country club.

“That business lasted 55 years,” he says, “and I loved to play the Dunes golf course. But eventually, when I was with Mirage Resorts, I rigged dynamite in the Dunes hotel and Steve Wynn and others took it down in order to build Bellagio.”

Everything has a life expectancy, Baldwin says. Some things are built to last 20 years, 40 years, 50 years, but not City Center. “It’s built to last forever,” he says. “I think it’s going to outlast us and our children, and their children.”

As we finish the brief conversation, it’s time to enter Vdara for the first time, and you’re initially struck by the scent – the hotel smells like a new Lexus. It’s plush, adult, muted, gaudy without being overwhelming -- even though the spa spans 18,000 square feet and offers something called a “vegan manicure."

Because this is a party, beverages are offered by dark-suited staffers carrying silver trays. One approaches with a collection of smoothies in assorted colors, including purple. These drinks are free, today, and you have to chuckle, knowing that somewhere downtown, casino customers blithe to this evolution are playing for free bottles of Miller Lite, 25 cents at a time.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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