Friday, Nov. 9, 2001 | 11:04 a.m.
To a city spoiled by a three-year wave of megaresort openings, next Thursday's debut of the Palms hotel-casino might not seem that big of a deal.
Its capital outlay, at $265 million, is quite modest by Strip standards -- the least expensive Strip-area casino to open in the last three years, Paris Las Vegas, cost three times as much. And the Palms isn't even located on the Strip, but about one mile west.
Yet many are awaiting the 11 p.m. opening of the Palms with the same kind of anticipation that preceded the opening of many of the megaresorts of the last three years.
"If only the Palms Casino Resort had been open when 'Ocean's 11' was being shot in Las Vegas," sighed Movieline magazine. "George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and the rest of the crew could have done the Rat Pack proud raising holy hell in Sin City's latest prodigal playground."
How big is the hype? So big some are comparing the Palms' young president, 37-year-old George Maloof, to the biggest name in the Las Vegas casino business.
"(Maloof) is Steve Wynn, take away 25 years," said UNLV professor Bill Thompson. "He's a personality that can influence the way a property develops."
Big shoes to fill. But Maloof is promising not to disappoint with the hotel he's been planning since 1996.
"I want to bring back the spirit of Las Vegas, which is that Las Vegas is the party town of the world," Maloof said. "I wanted to create the ultimate party hotel in the world. If you can't have fun here, you can't have fun."
The Maloof family, best known outside of Las Vegas as the owner of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, owns 88 percent of the hotel-casino. A six-percent stake is also held by each of the minority partners, the Greenspun family of Las Vegas (owner of the Las Vegas Sun) and Station Casinos Inc.
Station is the company that acquired the Fiesta from the Maloofs in January for $185 million.
The Palms' 455-room hotel tower rises 42 stories above Flamingo Road, a height almost equal to the neighboring Rio hotel-casino. Atop the tower is Ghostbar, a lounge overlooking the Las Vegas Strip. Those on Ghostbar's balcony who dare can step outside, stand on a pane of glass, and stare down at the pool deck 450 feet below.
On ground level is Rain in the Desert, a 25,000-square-foot, three-level nightclub. Patrons entering the club come through a gold-mirrored tunnel of fog and lights; within the club they'll be met by a three-story waterfall that can double as a projection screen; a center stage surrounded by a moat filled with Bellagio-like dancing fountains, with flamethrowers in a rig suspended above; and VIP lounges with huge "water booths," a waterbed version of a banquette.
Outside, at night, the pool deck converts into "Skin," an outdoor neighbor nightclub of Rain.
There are other touches meant to draw the tourists down from the Strip: Little Buddha Cafe, a Chinese restaurant imported from Paris, with a foyer filled with hundreds of Buddha statues; Nine, a steakhouse from Chicago; Alize, a French restaurant sitting atop the Palms tower; an 18,000-square-foot spa; and a palm-reader Maloof refers to as "the psychic department." There's even a baccarat pit here.
The Maloofs are also making a play to bring basketball stars to the Palms -- 24 of the rooms have been designated "NBA rooms," with longer-than-normal beds and higher-than-normal showers.
Forget the locals' video poker-oriented Fiesta -- most observers believe Palms is the kind of place that will draw the young, status-eager, free-spending patrons that clog the Hard Rock.
"It's every bit as cool as the Hard Rock, and in some ways cooler," said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter. "There's all these things put in there to make this ultra-chic. About the only thing they won't have is the (Hard Rock) name."
But Maloof is making an aggressive play for locals as well. He has no choice -- his property is located a mile west of the Strip's walkways, and his property has only 455 rooms. Neither is enough to carry the Palms.
There's more than a few touches of the Fiesta here.
The 95,000-square-foot casino has 2,400 slot machines. And the mix will look familiar to Fiesta patrons -- lots of video poker, lots of loose slots, Maloof said.
"People will be quite surprised when they look at our floor," Maloof said. "I guess they'll be expecting it because of my reputation."
There's also a 14-screen movie theater, a buffet priced to compete with that offered at the nearby Gold Coast and Orleans, easy parking, a bingo room, and two restaurants making an encore from the Fiesta: Garduno's Mexican Restaurant and Blue Agave Oyster and Chile Bar.
"If they can't park, if they can't get in the building easily, if there's not value in the restaurants, if they don't have a good chance of hitting on the slot machines, they (the locals) aren't going to come," Maloof said.
Trying to make one property cater to both the local and the tourist has been a risky proposition in the past. Witness the Regent Las Vegas, which aimed for both but struggled to capture either, and fell into bankruptcy less than two years after opening.
"That's been deadly in the past," Curtis said.
Yet Curtis believes the bargain-hunting, deal-seeking local won't be able to resist. And he noted that the mix has worked before -- Rio creator Tony Marnell successfully mixed the two in the Rio's early days.
"The discerning local wants the value and the saving," Curtis said. "Even if they aren't crazy about mixing with the punky, younger crowd, if the value's there, they'll still do it."
The Palms appears to have a good start in gathering a locals base -- even before the Palms opens. Maloof says he has 50,000 residents signed up for his slot cards. He had projected 15,000 by this time.
The Palms appears on target to avoid the kind of delays that hung up the openings of the Venetian and Aladdin -- county officials say the property had already passed half of its safety tests by Nov. 1, and was expected to receive complete approval from the county by Saturday.
"They're right on track for their opening," said Clark County Building Department spokeswoman Rita Mincavage.
There may, however, be one headache looming for the Palms.
When the Palms opens Thursday, not one of its 2,500 employees will belong to a union. That was also true for the Fiesta, but that property was in territory far from the Culinary's home turf on the Strip. The Palms is not; and the Culinary finally won a battle to organize the Rio less than a year ago.
Will the Palms be the next target on the Culinary's list? Neither side's saying much about that possibility, though the union isn't trying to dissuade anyone from drawing that conclusion.
"All properties in and around the Strip have been likely targets for our union," said Culinary staff director D. Taylor.
"It's up to the employees, is my position on it," Maloof said. "It's up to them."