Friday, Oct. 31, 1997 | 11:40 a.m.
After spending a year and $100 million as part of an ongoing rebuilding of the historic Sahara, longtime Las Vegans are wondering if owner Bill Bennett can bring back the luster to what was once known as the "jewel of the desert."
Built by entrepreneur Milton Prell in 1952, the Sahara thrived in the early days of Las Vegas, but for the past 20 years, the sprawling hotel-casino on the Strip has faced difficult times, including competing with the growth of megaresorts on the Strip.
Two years ago, Bennett, the former Circus Circus chairman and considered a pioneer of the the themed megaresorts, purchased the Sahara from Paul Lowden for $150 million and announced he would renovate and expand the old hotel-casino to try to bring back the mystique of early Las Vegas.
It is a history filled with memories of great entertainers who have performed in the hotel's Congo Room, such as Marlene Dietrich, Bobby Darin and Red Skelton.
For decades the most recognizable Sahara stars were the famous camel statues that stood in front of the hotel's west side facing the Strip.
Today, the statues are gone, as are many of the Sahara's patrons. Years ago, they started leaving the Sahara to frequent Bennett's family-themed resorts to the south.
"It's ironic. Bennett as owner of the Sahara is now going to compete with Circus Circus, which he invented," said Bill Schmidt, gaming analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co., who added that Bennett has his work cut out for him.
"The market in general has been overbuilt for the last year, and like everyone else, he's competing for market share. It's just a matter of what you spend to lure patrons," Schmidt said. "That advantage he has is that the Sahara has the appearance of a new property."
Among the new features are images of the Sahara camels that have been recaptured on a video display on the hotel's 190-foot-high minaret-topped electric marquee.
The camels seem to watch over an opulently-styled, Moroccan-themed paradise complete with tall arches, brilliantly colored mosaics and crystal chandeliers.
While Sahara officials note the luxurious image of the original hotel-casino has been recaptured through the massive reconstruction project, they also stress that the newly renovated property is both lavish and affordable to locals and middle-income tourists.
"The theme of the Sahara has always been value, and that's not going to change," said Craig Hodgkins, president and general manager. "The new Sahara offers a great deal of entertainment to customers for an affordable price."
The new Sahara is markedly different from Circus Circus and Excalibur, which Bennett developed as family resort destinations, Hodgkins said. The hotel-casino is being marketed both as a get-away vacation resort for visitors and a destination for local residents looking for bargain entertainment.
But can the Sahara draw traffic to the north end of the Las Vegas Strip, an area that is far from the Strip's great megaresorts to the south?
And can the Sahara shake it itself loose from any comparisons to the closed El Rancho hotel-casino just to the south, and the financially troubled Stratosphere Tower to the north?
"We're a little bit away from the Stratosphere," Hodgkins said. "I think we're in a better location. We're at Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue and that's the second busiest intersection in the city."
But Joe Milanowski, gaming analyst with USA Capital, questions whether the location will pose some initial problems for the Sahara.
"Realistically, it's a long way from where people are mingling today," he said.
Still, Milanowsky is optimistic about the Sahara's long-range future.
"Ultimately, I think properties are going to start moving back there," Milanowsky said. "It depends on how fast the Strip is absorbed. I don't think anybody really wants to be that far north at this point, but if somebody can make something happen, he will do for the North Strip what the Mirage and Excalibur did for the other end."
Bennett, who could not be reached for comment, said in an earlier interview that the Sahara renovation project "will complete the Strip from north to south as a total entertainment experience."
To capture the slot machine market, Bennett has quadrupled the casino space to 95,000 square feet and has filled the area with new model slots that offer higher percentage pay-outs.
"With the understanding that we cater to a mixed market, to locals as well as tourists, we must offer extreme value for our clientele, and so our state-of-the-art slot machines are set for higher pay-outs," said Yale Rowe, director of sales and marketing.
The expansion of the casino area to the southeast also brings this area close to the hotel rooms and newly located lavish pool area, complete with palm trees, canopies and cabanas.
Other changes to the hotel-casino include the complete renovation of all 1,750 rooms and the addition of a seven-story parking garage with 2,000 spaces.
Executives have also relocated the main entrance from the north side of the property to the southwest side on Las Vegas Boulevard to give the Sahara more of a Strip presence.
The hotel's new $4.6 million porte cochere is topped by an expansive overhead Moroccan-styled dome that is 140 feet high and 200 feet in diameter.
Surrounding the hotel's circular entryway are fountains and palm trees and a number of smaller tiled arches with intricately designed exteriors, all of it brightly lit.
The buffet area has been moved to the second level of the north side of the casino, and the size -- like that of the casino area -- has been quadrupled.
The walls are adorned with Moroccan art and fabric canopies, and above the buffet area hang crystal and punched metal chandeliers.
"We've got some very unusual hanging chandeliers with jewels that sparkle throughout the hotel, and the ceilings are very high, so there is a spacious and comfortable feeling to the property," said Jim Van Houten, construction project manager.
A feature Hodgkins said he is extremely excited about is the Sahara Speedway, the hotel's new $15 million indoor race-car simulation that includes two dozen cars.
"Racing fans will have a unique opportunity to experience the thrill of driving a high-performance race car without leaving the property," Hodgkins said.
And when hotel-casino visitors do leave the property, they might be notice a 40-acre parcel of land just across the Strip to the west on Sahara Avenue.
Bennett purchased that land two years ago for an undisclosed price, but no Sahara official dared to venture a guess as to what the 72-year-old casino mogul intends to do with it.
"I've haven't a clue," Rowe said.