The Good Times Stop Rolling: Vegas Meets the Recession

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Ethan Miller / Getty

An aerial view of the construction site for CityCenter in Las Vegas

With Las Vegas in the grips of its worst economy since the early 1980s, the storm that dumped four inches of snow on the desert metropolis in mid-December felt like piling on. The city's cocksure swagger is gone.

Gaming revenue in Clark County, which includes downtown Las Vegas and the Strip, is down 8.5% for the year, to $8.3 billion. But the revenue for October, the last month for which figures are available, is off an ominous 24.3% vs. the same month in 2007. Visitor volume is down 3% over last year, though the city's convention business is holding steady. (Read TIME's Top 10 business deals of the year.)

The Strip's restaurants have seen a proportional decrease along with overall visitor traffic. David McIntyre, vice president of food and beverage at MGM Grand — which counts among its stable of high-end eateries such restaurants as Shibuya, Nobhill and a pair from French maestro Joel Robuchon — notes that visitors have become more careful with their dollars. "They're still going out to eat; they're just not spending as much money," McIntyre says. "They might not have that second glass of wine." (See 10 things to do in Las Vegas.)

The recession is hitting Las Vegas on all fronts. Nevada legislators have struggled to close a deficit of more than $1 billion in the 2009 budget. Budget projections for 2010 and 2011 also look grim. Construction on Boyd Gaming's $4.8 billion Echelon resort was stopped last August just as three of its towers reached the 12th floor (the tallest would have risen to 55 stories). Construction won't resume until 2010, though the cranes will remain towering above the site (it's cheaper to leave them in place — and these days no one else in town needs them).

A mile or two down the Strip, MGM Mirage just sold off Treasure Island for $775 million to billionaire casino operator Phil Ruffin. The cash infusion should help the corporation finish construction on its $9.1 billion CityCenter, the largest private construction job in the U.S. Yet even in the best-case scenario, Vegas — and the rest of the country — won't begin to drive out of the ditch until the end of next year, as consumer spending improves, new hiring resumes and the city's battered construction industry gets back on its feet. The worst case? The recession deepens, and the ditch turns into a cliff. (Read an analysis of Vegas' bad bets.)

From any vantage point, the situation is grim. Construction in the area dropped 92% in October, compared with the same month a year earlier. In November the county issued 80 new home permits, down from an average of almost 500 permits a month in 2007. Housing prices have deflated with a deafening groan. Keith Schwer, who runs the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, estimates that 50% of homeowners owe more than what their home is worth. Perhaps the only positive note is that housing prices have returned to more reasonable levels. "We're getting back into the affordability range," Schwer says. "The only problem is we don't have credit to buy them, and we're losing jobs." (See pictures of Las Vegas.)

Nevada's unemployment rate jumped from 0.4% to 8% in November, the highest rate since 1984, and Schwer says it could rise to 10% next year. The figure translates to more than 111,700 unemployed Nevadans, according to the state's Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. (The national rate is 6.7%.) Meanwhile, the city's largest food bank, Three Square, which supplies food to nonprofits throughout the city, budgeted $250,000 for purchasing food in 2008. The total food need for destitute families throughout the Las Vegas Valley is closer to $1.3 million.

Las Vegas, however, is nothing if not optimistic. Its history gives it good reason to be. Boosters point to the coming 2009 debuts of CityCenter, the Fountainebleau and the M Resort, which add up to $20 billion of construction, as proof that the Vegas brand is fundamentally strong. "There's a resilience to Las Vegas that's unlike anything else you see in the country," says Dick Rizzo, vice chairman of Perini Building Co., the largest construction firm in town.

And then, as if on cue, here comes Steve Wynn. Three days before Christmas, he opened the new addition to his swanky Wynn Las Vegas resort, a $2.3 billion, 2,034-room playground called Encore. The new property is easily the most decorative and jubilant in the city; it lets in an abundance of natural light while somehow managing to keep the view of a struggling city at bay.

A new casino opening always pumps some energy into Las Vegas. But Vegas shares with the rest of the country the feeling that things will get worse before they get better. Whether Encore signals a new beginning for Las Vegas, the way Wynn's Mirage did in 1989, is not a bet to take lightly. "We're still in a fairly early phase in the downturn," says Schwer. "I don't see Steve Wynn sticking his finger in the dike and holding it back."

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