The big story in Las Vegas this weekend is the impending closure of the Sahara Hotel and Casino and the tone of the narrative is one of wistful nostalgia for the glory days of the property when it was considered one of the ‘class joints’ in town. From the time it opened in 1954, the Sahara saw a ‘who’s who’ of entertainment perform there including some of the iconic names of Las Vegas history—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Carson, Louis Prima and Keely Smith are all part of the property’s show biz lineage. The second component of this narrative is that the venerable property fell victim to the worldwide economic downturn that hit Las Vegas harder than arguably any other part of the country. Despite the best efforts of ownership they couldn’t withstand the economic maelstrom and that is what finally sealed the Sahara’s fate.
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation doesn’t quite mesh with the storyline. The current owners of the Sahara, Stockbridge Real Estate of San Francisco, won’t win any prizes for market timing having acquired the property in 2007 just in time for the downward plunge in real estate values and casino revenues in Southern Nevada. That notwithstanding, however, they put for a credible effort of making a go of things in a brutal business climate. The impressive list of show biz luminaries that has become the focal point of Sahara nostalgia is legitimate, but since the early 1980’s when Tina Turner performed in the Congo Room the star power featured hasn’t been particularly impressive—the major entertainers in the past 30 years have been magicians Steve Wyrick, Rick Thomas and former Partridge Family heartthrob David Cassidy. They’re all talented entertainers, but a clear cut below the ‘A listers’ of the Sahara’s glory days.
To paraphrase the late radio icon Paul Harvey, now we’re going to tell you ‘the rest of the story’. The most amazing thing about the Sahara is that it managed to survive as long as it did. The fatal blow for the property was the opening of the Mirage in 1989—it changed the dynamic of the city forever and upped the ante for being a ‘major property’. The die had already been cast when Circus Circus overlord Bill Bennett brought the Sahara in the mid 1990’s. Despite a thriving business of adult gamblers and business travelers he made the boneheaded decision to reduce the Sahara’s convention space, and retrofit the property to presumably target the Circus Circus demographic. The ‘Las Vegas as a family fun destination’ meme was thankfully short lived but even had it remained viable it’s unlikely that the Sahara’s biggest additions during the Bennett reign of error—a roller coaster and a NASCAR Cafe—would have been enough to pack ’em in.
While there’s no doubt that the recession has caused its share of suffering in Southern Nevada, it’s also given a cover story of ‘plausible deniability’ that allowed businessmen to bail out on projects that were likely doomed from the beginning. The ‘party line’ is that the economic downturn torpedoed not only the Sahara but a couple of planned mega-resorts on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip including Boyd Gaming’s Echelon Project (planned for the former Stardust site) and the Fountainbleu. The reality is that they’re among many businesses that bet wrong on the direction of the Strip’s growth—they went ‘all in’ on the revitalization of the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard and lost. When the Stratosphere opened in the mid 1990’s the expectation was that it would anchor the north end of The Strip and continue toward downtown. Instead, the bulk of new development since then has been on the other end of The Strip. In the mid 1980’s South Las Vegas Boulevard was the Hacienda and the Vacation Village and then desert all the way to the California border but since then there’s been a staggering amount of residential and commercial development.
A popular narrative device in the many articles about the closing of the Sahara that have appeared in the Las Vegas media is the ‘old timer’s lament’. They’ll get a longtime employee or visitor to the Sahara to wistfully talk about how they miss the ‘old Las Vegas’ and that the Sahara’s closing is just the latest casualty. That line of reasoning misses the point of why Las Vegas exists in the first place. Las Vegas doesn’t celebrate sin, excess, greed, lust or all of the other human desires to which it’s prosperity is ascribed. Las Vegas more than anything is a celebration of change—more appropriately the uniquely American ability to adapt, survive and prosper throughout. The gaming dependent economy of Las Vegas has always been volatile and subject to dramatic amplitudes of the business cycle. The culture of the city has always been chaotic and transitory. On a macro and micro level, the success stories in Las Vegas are a function of navigating this ongoing process of invention and reinvention. Failure in this milieu results from stasis and reverence for the status quo and ultimately that is the true cause of the Sahara’s demise.
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