Tuesday, June 16, 1998 | 11:07 a.m.
WHEN YOU'RE AS successful as Mirage Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn, competition is hard to find in Las Vegas.
One man, however, is emerging as Wynn's biggest competitor on the Strip -- Las Vegas Sands Inc. Chairman Sheldon Adelson.
Like Wynn, Adelson is building a $2 billion megaresort (the Venetian) that promises to change the way Las Vegas attracts tourists.
And like Wynn, Adelson has become active in Nevada politics behind the scenes, often on the opposite side of Wynn.
The two men haven't always had cordial relations since Adelson arrived from Boston less than a decade ago.
Last week, however, in a rare interview, Wynn displayed much respect for his Strip rival. It was Wynn's idea to talk about Adelson. He often referred to him affectionately as "Shelly."
Adelson, who has been out of the country, has been difficult to reach for comment. But this space is open to him for equal time when he returns.
Wynn said the Sands boss, whom he doesn't consider an "adversary," shares his goal of taking Las Vegas to greater heights. Wynn's Bellagio megaresort is set to open Oct. 15.
"We've got to upgrade (Las Vegas)," he said. "It's been a place that's been lacking good taste for a long time. It's been a place that has been unimaginative in many areas for a long time. It's been a place where human resources have been mismanaged for a long time."
When Wynn described Adelson, it was almost as if he was talking about himself.
"Sheldon Adelson is an exciting, eccentric, opinionated, strong-willed man," Wynn said. "He tends to have a combative personality. That's one of the reasons why he's so successful.
"He loves to be fighting against all odds to prove himself. It's not an uncommon trait among great leaders. He says his hotel will take Las Vegas to a new level.
"We must always thank God for that kind of personality ... because every time Las Vegas has ever been taken to a new level, there has been a man like that who did it," Wynn said.
"The thing that I fear is the quiet, non-controversial, non-combative, totally non-eccentric personality who has no taste, no ambition, no drive to excellence. And there have been a lot of them here.
"Sheldon Adelson is like a lion roaring about his hotel," Wynn added. "He wants it to be better than Steve Wynn's and everybody else's. Let's go Shelly ... Let's go Shelly."
At the same time, Wynn offered advice to Adelson about the world of politics in Southern Nevada, where Adelson has become a threatening force to some.
"If a powerful man doesn't understand his position in the community, then he can shake things up," Wynn said.
"But whether you think Sheldon Adelson should or shouldn't give a lot of money to defeat a county commissioner who offends him like (Paul) Christensen, or whether you think he should or shouldn't fund a campaign to take on the union's right to collect dues, isn't really important.
"The question is: is Sheldon Adelson the kind of guy who gets smarter every day? Who assimilates in the community? Who modifies his positions? Who learns?"
Wynn said many people, Adelson included, react to situations in life out of fear.
"I don't think Shelly would be as committed to spending a lot of money to defeat a county commissioner, such as he did last time, if he really understood that that county commissioner was no threat to him," Wynn said.
Wynn suggested that Adelson had "exaggerated the importance" of Christensen's opposition during some votes on the Venetian project. The Venetian is going up on the site of the old Sands hotel-casino across from the Mirage, Wynn's current flagship resort.
"Nothing was going to stop it from being built if he was reasonable," Wynn said. "Certainly not a county commissioner who disagreed with him."
Wynn said Adelson hasn't learned yet that everybody in Las Vegas is not out to destroy his ambitious resort project.
"You survive a defeat here and there," the Mirage boss said.
Wynn said five years from now, when Adelson is "more relaxed and understands his environment," he'll be less likely to do what he did in the 1996 election against Christensen.
Lately, Adelson has funded attempts to recall another perceived political adversary, County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates, from office.
"I think Sheldon Adelson is a man who has gotten himself completely absorbed in his project and overreacts because of his project," Wynn said.
Wynn predicted Adelson eventually will resolve his bitter dispute with the Culinary Union, the state's largest and most politically active local. The union is pressing Adelson to give former Sands workers first crack at jobs when the Venetian opens.
"He'll get over that," said Wynn, who enjoys friendly labor relations. "The Culinary Union is not his enemy."
Wynn said he has tried to persuade Adelson to end his fight with the Culinary Union, but so far has not had much success.
"There isn't anything that makes good business sense over there that he couldn't do with the Culinary Union as we know it today ... because they don't want to lose him," Wynn said. "They don't want to have a fight."
When the dust settles, Wynn said, Adelson "may be very good for Las Vegas."
But he added: "He may make it tougher on himself than he has to. He may take the edge off his opening, which he doesn't have to.
"Ultimately, he will find out that there's nothing to be frightened of."