THE NATION’S BUSINESS

A Las Vegas dealer’s big bet on Canada

‘I’m in entertainment first and gambling second. I run resort hotels that include casinos, not casinos that include hotels.’

Peter C. Newman August 8 1994
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

A Las Vegas dealer’s big bet on Canada

‘I’m in entertainment first and gambling second. I run resort hotels that include casinos, not casinos that include hotels.’

Peter C. Newman August 8 1994

A Las Vegas dealer’s big bet on Canada

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

‘I’m in entertainment first and gambling second. I run resort hotels that include casinos, not casinos that include hotels.’

PETER C. NEWMAN

Like P. G. Wodehouse’s fictional butler Jeeves, Stephen Wynn enters the room as “a procession of one.” A charismatic wheeler-dealer out of Las Vegas, Nev., he regards himself as a visionary (“a guy who sees where the market is headed five minutes ahead of the competition”) and his vision these days is wrapped up in building mega entertainment-casino projects in Vancouver and Toronto.

By all accounts, Wynn runs a clean and classy operation that attracts large crowds and revenues of more than $1.3 billion a year, drawn as much by the entertainment values he offers as the gambling facilities he provides. Wynn arrives in this country at a time when five provincial governments are either running or thinking of operating casinos— gambling has become a mushrooming $11billion industry, one of the few growth sectors we’ve got.

Although he has drawn up magnificent plans for a pair of $ 1-billion projects, Wynn is having trouble convincing local politicians that Canada is ready for the Las Vegas approach he represents. “I’ve been having a bit of trouble finding where my spot in the pool is,” he told me during a recent interview. “I’m a foreign visitor in a foreign land, and I’m discussing emotionally charged political issues, but perpetuating the old image of Las Vegas is not how I got here. It’s not what I do for a living.” What makes Wynn different is not the measure of his morality but his willingness to accommodate the changing times. He represents the corporate takeover of American gambling, the emergence of the casino above ground as an integral part, but only a part, of huge, new family destination resorts. “How could you sell anything with just a casino?” he asks. “They’re everywhere. They’ve got casinos all over Asia. But why do their high rollers come to Vegas on Chinese New Year? They only gamble as part of the excitement. They’re there for other reasons. I love the niche I’m in because it’s family and it’s forever.”

What’s happened to Las Vegas, mainly at Wynn’s hotels is that the city has been transformed into a slightly hard-edged branch plant of Disney World. The reception desk at Wynn’s Mirage, for example, is backed by a 80-foot-wide saltwater aquarium with sharks (the fish, not the card kind) and 999 other aquatic varieties swimming around an artificial coral reef. Other Mirage facilities include a 1.5-million-gallon dolphin habitat, a show featuring white Bengal tigers and the lifelike model of a volcano that spews flames and smoke on command. His newest hotel project, Treasure Island, is built around a remarkably lifelike sea battle between two warships. Not a push-up-brassiered show girl in sight.

“I’m in the entertainment business first and gambling second,” says Wynn. “I rur Tsort hotels that include casinos, not casinos that include hotels.” Does that mean he could do without casinos? No way. “You can’t build these luxury resorts from room-rate revenues alone. It’s the extra $200 per room or so you make a day from the casinos and retail sales that determine how extravagant your facilities are and how much debt you can service.” (The Mirage requires a daily turnover of $1.3 million from all sources simply in order to

break even. Slot machines produce, on average, $200 daily; meanwhile, the house edge for roulette is 5.5 per cent; for craps it ranges from one to 30 per cent; and for blackjack it is just 1.7 per cent.)

The 52-year-old Wynn, who Fortune magazine listed as the highest-paid executive in America in 1991 (the year he received $46 million in total compensation) doesn’t own a gun and wears no pinkie rings, though he used to favor Dunhill Montechristo cigars. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in English literature, he helped run his parents’ bingo hall and made his original stake in a real estate deal with the late Howard Hughes. He has won repute as a Jet Skier, bodybuilder, rock climber and Windsurfer, but the most fascinating, though little-known fact about Wynn is that, at 29, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that reduces his field of vision and may eventually make him blind. As it is, he can’t see clearly around his office, yet he carries himself with such graceful aplomb that few visitors are aware of his affliction.

Of his current projects, Wynn is most enthusiastic about the $ 1-billion cruise-ship terminal, hotel, casino, convention centre, and retail, arts and entertainment complex he wants to build on 48 currently derelict acres adjoining Vancouver harbor. The project would create 15,000 permanent jobs, and even though British Columbia already has 18 casinos, the NDP government, which originally backed Wynn’s application, seems now to be backing off. Wynn, who says he has already spent more than $1 million on preliminary plans, remains committed. “This,” he enthuses, “will be like the Sydney opera house. This will be one of the most famous projects in the world. It makes you salivate if you’re a guy like me. I’m willing to do this without a dollar of public money. I’m going to dedicate myself for four years to get it done. This isn’t about organized crime or prostitution or taking anything away from Vancouver. I’ll become the most protective member of this community you’ve ever met. I want this project so bad I can taste it.”

His $1.2-billion Toronto project proposal has temporarily run into similar walls at the provincial and municipal levels when he was considering putting it into the underutilized grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. But he has met with, and received, a favorable reception from federal Industry Minister John Manley, whose parliamentary secretary, Dennis Mills, has organized the Toronto Liberal caucus behind the project. Attention has now switched to the blighted Canadian National railway lands between the city and CNE, where Wynn plans to build a new home for Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil theatre group, as well as a convention centre, first-class hotel and casino. Wynn has also brought in Time Warner to help with the planning of a theme park that will be more like a permanent Expo. Preliminary estimates claim Wynn’s dream would create 50,000 new jobs.

If anyone can make it happen, it’s Steve Wynn.