For a New Vegas, Ya Gotta Have a Strip

Sheldon G. Adelson can never be accused of lacking vision. In 1979, the tour operator and serial entrepreneur launched Comdex, the annual computer-industry confab that ultimately became the world's largest trade show. Adelson sold that business to Softbank Corp. in 1995 for $862 million--and then rolled the dice on casino gambling. The result: the $1.2 billion Venetian Casino Resorts, which bucked conventional wisdom in Las Vegas by focusing on business customers and conventioneers. Today, it's one of the top hotels in town.

Now, the 69-year-old son of a Boston cab driver is embarking on what he vows will be his crowning achievement. In February, Adelson won one of three licenses to operate casinos in Macau. And he says he has studied what made Las Vegas a success and knows what Macau is missing: "There's no strip."

So he's going to build one. Adelson is eyeballing a stretch of empty land near Macau's airport. His plan: burst on the scene in 2005 with hotels and casinos spilling down a grand boulevard, a mini version of the Vegas original. His eyes grow wide as he describes his $1 billion dream: several hotels, including a 1,500-room Venetian clone with faux canals, gondolas, and an ersatz Campanile tower. Then--can't you just see it?--there's an 80,000-sq.-meter. convention center and a 13,000-seat arena for everything from rock concerts to kickboxing. "We're talking about an entirely new city," Adelson says. There's no timetable for construction yet, but in the meantime, he's planning a casino downtown that's slated to open in late 2003.

How to pay for this dream? Adelson is talking to the big hotel chains that would build and run the hostelries while he equips and operates the casinos inside. Problem is, most big chains either already have partners in Macau or say they're not interested. Adelson boasts that if he can't round up investors, "Sheldon Adelson will make up the difference." That may be tough. His privately held Las Vegas Sands Inc., which owns the Venetian, is saddled with some $1.3 billion in debt. And operating profits were flat, at $27 million, in the quarter ended June 30, on a 6% drop in revenues, to $128 million.

There are other potential problems, too. Despite his bluster, Adelson still doesn't have the land he needs fully secured. And while Macau officials want more hotels and casinos--and the attendant tax revenues--some oppose the cleanup that will be necessary if Adelson's plan is to succeed. "If the Americans try to bring in their system, it will be a total failure," says Macau legislator Jorge Manuel Fao.

Others like Adelson's dreams. Manuel Joaquim das Neves, director of Macau's Gaming Control Board, says: "He can turn Macau into one of the most important conference and convention centers in Asia." And if it takes a strip to make that happen, das Neves is all for building Adelson's mini-Vegas.

By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles, with Frederik Balfour in Macau

— With assistance by Frederik Balfour

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