Wednesday, Sept. 16, 1998 | 10:31 a.m.
Las Vegas golf course owner and sports gambler Billy Walters said he knew nine months ago that there wasn't enough support for a Formula One racetrack on the Las Vegas Strip.
On Tuesday, the Clark County Commission proved him right by selecting his proposal to develop 155 acres of publicly owned land on the Strip south of Russell Road for 27 holes of golf.
The 3-0 vote, itself unusual because four commissioners abstained, was a fitting conclusion to one of the most controversial local land deals in recent memory.
Choosing from three competing proposals, all of which included 18-hole public golf courses, Commissioners Erin Kenny, Myrna Williams and Yvonne Atkinson Gates selected the Walters Group plan that also features a nine-hole course. Without explanation, the trio chose that plan over others that featured a racetrack and a tennis complex.
Walters, who owns the Desert Pines golf course, was both elated and relieved to have come out on top during a process that dragged on for a year. The process was punctuated with countless commission delays. They were caused largely because all three proposers had strong local political connections that raised questions about potential conflicts of interest.
"We're looking forward to developing a one-of-a-kind, first-class golf facility," Walters said. "We were offering more access to locals and more affordable rates than the other proposals. We are developing a golf course that will cost twice as much as the others and were offering the county three times the revenue over the terms of the (50-year) contract."
Walters' glee contrasted with a teary-eyed Tommy Baker, the Las Vegas resident who had attempted to get an F-1 track in town for more than three years.
"This town has lost a lot," Baker said. "There wasn't a true sense by the commissioners about what proposal made the most sense. They simply went with private interests."
The other loser was the Gary Player Design Group and Club Corp. of America, whose proposal included the tennis complex. One of its partners, tennis star Andre Agassi, sat expressionless during the commission vote and made a quick exit.
Baker alleged that the commissioners bought into a deal he said was brokered between Walters and Circus Circus Enterprises. Baker said the resort, which next year will open the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino, had its eye on the vacant property across Russell Road as a potential private golf course.
But Baker said the resort couldn't acquire the property because the land, a combination of parcels owned by county-run McCarran International Airport and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, was eyed by the county for public recreational use. He accused Circus Circus of orchestrating opposition against the racetrack, such as by complaining about potential noise levels from a race, in order for Walters' proposal to succeed.
Walters acknowledged meeting with Circus officials but denied that he struck a deal with the company or that its customers would get preferential tee times.
"I don't think that dignifies a reply," Walters said. "There's no merit to it. We actually answered questions with regard to what concerns they had. We are committed to working with them on issues.
"As far as any alliance with Circus Circus, we're just honored to have a property next to their property."
Commissioners Bruce Woodbury, Mary Kincaid and Lance Malone all abstained from voting because of current or former connections with proposers. Woodbury is a close friend of local advertising executive Sig Rogich, a political heavyweight who was a partner in the US/GP-LV Partnership that wanted to build a 2.9-mile racetrack.
Rogich wrote to Gates on Monday explaining that he would donate his consulting fees on the project to charity and drop out of the partnership in order to remove that potential conflict of interest from the commission. But Woodbury and Kincaid, who also count Rogich as a friend, abstained on the advice of the Nevada Ethics Commission. Kincaid is a friend of Walters, Agassi and attorney Mahlon Brown, who also was affiliated with Club Corp.
"In the future, I will be redefining friendship," Kincaid said. "I am very distressed that I won't be able to vote on this."
County staff also recommended that Malone not vote because he had abstained during a May discussion involving the proposals. At that time, his father was employed as a starter at one of Walters' golf courses, but he has since retired from that job. Still, Malone was advised that if he had a potential conflict at any time during the process, he shouldn't participate even if that conflict no longer existed.
Though Kenny, Williams and Gates voted, they, too, had connections that cynics of government could argue were potential conflicts. Gates, like Woodbury, benefited from a 1996 campaign fund-raiser that Walters held at his home.
Kenny, likewise, received at least $20,000 from Circus properties for her re-election bid this year.
"What I find curious in the media is how much interest there is in the need to get this behind us," Kenny said, addressing critics of the commission's delays.
Williams is acquainted with Rogich and Brown, though she counted neither as close friends. She, too, received at least $20,000 for her re-election bid from Circus Circus properties. Both Kenny and Williams also received $5,000 each from the Sahara hotel-casino, whose owner, Bill Bennett, also opposed the Formula One plan. As co-owner of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Bennett sought unsuccessfully to get the proposed annual F-1 race at his track.
Walters, however, downplayed potential conflicts related to campaign contributions. He said people are "crazy" if they believe political contributions buy politicians.
Commissioner Lorraine Hunt became the fourth member to abstain because she thought it was premature to select a proposal until after Congress voted on a proposed land bill that could impact the Strip property. The bill, which passed the House and awaits a vote in the Senate, would transfer the BLM share of the Strip property to the airport. That would give the county complete control of the land.
That's important because as long as BLM remains involved, the land remains subject to federal restrictions regarding its use for recreational purposes. No one knows for sure whether the Senate will vote on the bill before it adjourns for the year early next month.
One issue that needs to be worked out is whether Walters will be able to charge one golf fee for locals and a higher fee for tourists. He has proposed a top rate of $53 a round. His main course, a 7,000-yard layout, will be designed by renowned golf architect Pete Dye.
The commissioners gave Walters no more than two years to get the project up and running.
The projected investment in this development is $33 million, excluding a water re-use facility that could add $10 million in costs. The county would receive an estimated $116 million in revenues from years 11 to 50 of the contract.
The county will not earn any revenue the first 10 years. Walters said all revenues generated in the first 10 years will go to pay off the project's debts.
Walters' golf division, Southwest Golf, will manage the courses. Others involved in his consortium include former Boyd Gaming Corp. President Charles Ruthe and Breslin Builders President Jack Breslin of Las Vegas.