Thursday, March 7, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
It was more a coronation than a crucifixion.
Some pundits had predicted the State Gaming Control Board would use Stratosphere Corp.'s licensing hearing to grill Bob Stupak yet again about controversial practices that had once brought him to the brink of gaming-license revocation.
Instead, the board on Wednesday used the occasion to praise the creative force behind the towering resort complex scheduled to open next month on Las Vegas Boulevard north of the Strip.
"This is a great project for the state and for Las Vegas," Chairman Bill Bible said after the three-member board voted unanimously to approve the licensing of Stupak and other corporate executives.
"You're to be complimented on your vision," Bible told the frail, uncharacteristically subdued Stupak, who is recovering from injuries sustained in a near-fatal motorcycle accident last April.
It was a sharp contrast to previous Stupak appearances before the Control Board. Frequently combative and always flamboyant, he had several run-ins with state authorities about questionable marketing strategies that culminated in a $150,000 fine for deceptive advertising used to lure customers to Vegas World, the Stupak-owned hotel-casino razed to make way for the Stratosphere.
"You certainly have a lot of creative talents," Bible said during one mild exchange with Stupak. "We just have to keep them employed in the right direction. If we do, I think you have a home run here."
"I think we're looking at a 'bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out home run,'" said board member Steve DuCharme, a thinly veiled reference to Stupak's precarious position as a licensee in the days leading up to the closing of Vegas World.
Stupak pledged to maintain the stock-based escrow fund established when Grand Casinos Inc., Stratosphere Corp.'s majority shareholder, purchased the Vegas World site and began construction of the new hotel-casino. The fund was established to repay people who bought $398 vacation packages for Vegas World and don't want to exchange them for the Stratosphere.
As chairman of Stratosphere Corp., Stupak said he won't exercise day-to-day control over operations.
"I own about 17 percent of the company," he said, but, "my vote is only one of nine" directors.
The board also approved the licensure of those who will operate the 350,000-square-foot, 1,149-foot facility -- Chief Executive Officer Lyle Berman, President David Wirshing, Chief Financial Officer Thomas Lettero and Executive Vice President Andrew Blumen, as well as directors Patrick Cruzen and Robert Maheu.
Berman, whose Grand Casinos Inc. controls 43 percent of Stratosphere stock, met Stupak years ago in a high-stakes poker game and the two eventually became friends.
"When he showed me the drawings of the tower," Berman said, "it was love at first sight."
Though his family owns a chain of 200 leather-goods stores, Berman saw greater growth opportunities in gaming. He invested $3 million in an Indian gaming project in Minnesota in 1990 and now Grand Casinos operates two hotel-casinos each in Minnesota, Louisiana and Mississippi. The company's fourth-quarter 1995 revenues rose 30 percent, to $373 million from the year before.
"We wanted to be long-term players in full-service destination resorts," Berman told the gaming panel. "We've developed a first-class core management group that designs, develops and operates" the properties.
Berman "is the best casino operator in the world," Stupak said.