Las Vegas Sun

April 19, 2019

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Wheeling and dealing: Strip land owner seeks to swap parcels with county

Larry Kifer wants to trade his motel across the street from the huge pink tent at Circus-Circus for prime acreage tucked alongside the Las Vegas Strip's more glamorous resorts -- the Aladdin and Bellagio.

And the Algiers Hotel owner has brought in some of Southern Nevada's political heavyweights to get it done.

But whether the likes of real estate attorney Chris Kaempfer and lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis -- both major contributors to Clark County commissioners' campaigns -- can convince the county that Kifer's proposal is fair remains to be seen.

So far Kifer and Kaempfer have had success with one endeavor: They brought the county's auction of the sought-after 2.3 acres at Harmon Avenue and the Strip to a screeching halt last month.

They suggested to the commission that rather than auctioning off the parcel -- which would have brought more than $21 million to county coffers -- it should swap the land for Kifer's 3.6 acres at Las Vegas and and Riviera boulevards.

Waiting for the auction -- and the prime parcel -- was Frank Schreck, also a well-connected attorney and campaign contributor. Schreck represents Outland Development, which had investors lined up and planned to buy the land to build the world's tallest Ferris wheel with observation rooms.

Although the commission was split and opted on July 24 to postpone its decision for three months, Vassiliadis dismisses the idea that its concerns were political.

"I don't sense there is high-profile political hardball being played or anything along those lines," said Vassiliadis, who added that he is simply advising Kifer as a friend. "When you get two people as qualified and experienced as Chris (Kaempfer) and Frank (Schreck), it washes out."

What might not wash out in Kifer's favor are the values attached to each piece of land.

The county assessor's office disagrees with Kifer's assessment that his property is of equal value to the acreage at Harmon and Las Vegas Boulevard. The difference, in fact, is significant.

Ron Helling, senior audit appraiser in the assessor's office, said the Algiers' property is worth about $57 per square foot. The land adjacent to the Aladdin is valued at $200 per square foot.

"Market data indicate people will pay more for the central portion of the Strip and the south than they have for the northern part of the street," Helling said.

Helling added that the difference is historic; El Rancho's property (next to Wet 'n Wild) sold for $49 per square foot, yet casino mogul Steve Wynn bought land in the central portion of the Strip for $300 per square foot.

"There are three parts to the Strip," Helling said. "That's how the analysis has been derived and applied."

Some county officials have suggested Kifer is jacking up the value of the land because he is dealing with the government, not a private developer. Others are questioning why the Harmon parcel is assessed at $200 per square foot because it isn't large enough to develop a hotel.

Kifer declined to be interviewed and referred questions to Vassiliadis and Kaempfer.

Kifer's property, which the county claims is worth about $9 million, has been virtually held hostage by public works planners, who for nearly a decade have said the land will be needed to realign Riviera Boulevard.

His 40-year-old, 100-room hotel isn't the popular Las Vegas inn it once was. In fact, a website featuring visitors' comments quote guests as saying the hotel is dark and has a stench.

The owners have received permission from the county to expand the Algiers to 1,000 rooms to compete with neighbors, but Kifer is reluctant to sink money into the business because of the county's lingering road plans.

"He wants to get out of the uncertainty of the land he's on," Vassiliadis said. "Larry has been somewhat frustrated by the process."

Plenty of uncertainty surrounds the Riviera Boulevard realignment project. It has been kicked around but never started because of larger county road projects such as the Desert Inn Super Arterial and the Las Vegas Beltway.

"It hasn't been high on our priority list because it doesn't help east-west traffic," Bobby Shelton, County Public Works Department spokesman, said. "It would minimize traffic congestion on the Strip, but it wouldn't provide an overall benefit."

There aren't any definite plans to fix the intersection of Riviera and the Strip, which Shelton said will be aligned so that Riviera cuts through Kifer's property and is at a 90-degree angle to the Strip.

"There is no telling; it would be pure speculation," Shelton said of the county's timing. "It would depend on development that occurs in the area."

Meanwhile, Kaempfer successfully urged commissioners in June to postpone setting an auction date for the Harmon Avenue parcel despite pleas by Schreck, whose client faced a deadline with investors.

The decision sparked a debate between commissioners. Yvonne Atkinson Gates accused Myrna Williams -- who receives contributions from Schreck -- of talking as if it was assumed that Schreck's client had already been awarded the land.

Kifer, Kaempfer, Sen. Mark James -- who was once a law partner of Commissioner Bruce Woodbury -- met with Woodbury and Commissioners Erin Kenny and Dario Herrera in the chambers' back room at the next commission meeting, county sources said. The land swap appeared on the next agenda.

Kaempfer said his goal is to convince commissioners to decide on Kifer's property so that the Algiers can expand or Kifer can acquire the Harmon Avenue property to build a retail center.

"We said, 'Would you kindly make a decision?' " said Kaempfer, a campaign contributor who routinely appears before the commission and zoning board. " 'If you're not, that's intolerable to us.' "

The new proposal surprised Outland Development officials, who had never been told of the land swap plan.

Gregg Giuffria, Outland president and chief executive, said his company intends to pursue the 2.3 acres "through whatever ethical and legal ways there are."

"I'm tired of playing all these games," Giuffria said, referring to claims his company hired Schreck because of his political connections. "We have been a pawn in this, not a participating player."

Giuffria hopes to build a 518-foot-tall Ferris wheel comparable to the "London Eye" in England. The enclosed compartments seat 16 people, who would be served beverages during the 24-minute ride.

"We have a wonderful project that would add tourism and pride to the state of Nevada," Giuffria said. "We keep running into unusual situations that rear their head at the 11th hour. But we're tenacious and we'll keep fighting."