Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Missing Linq

Obsessive Vegas-watchers are aware that construction is already underway for Caesars Entertainment's Linq Project in the middle of The Strip. For those not in the know, Caesars hopes that The Linq will be a bit of a game-changer, an outdoor entertainment and shopping mecca with a massive Ferris Wheel serving as the centerpiece. Modeled after London's giant "Observation Wheel" (which has been featured prominently in episodes of Doctor Who and Sherlock, for all my BBC-Nerds out there), Linq's version will feature massive gondolas and take about an hour to rotate from top to bottom. The Linq will also feature (as yet unnamed) shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment options. As part of the half-billion dollar project, the sorta-crummy Imperial Palace will get a facelift and full re-brand (while O'Shea's has already closed and will be demolished to make way for the new project).

Las Vegas is going through a strange time, as the post-recession economic blues continue to drag down new spending in Sin City (and pretty much everywhere else in the country). Construction on numerous resorts has been shut down mid-project, and the last major opening in Vegas was The Cosmopolitan in early 2011. MGM's hyper ambitious CityCenter project was scaled back after major delays before it finally opened in late 2009 (while one of its towers, The Harmon Hotel, will eventually be never open and will eventually be demolished). Multi-billion dollar projects like The Fontainebleau and Echelon Place sit unfinished, serving as useful metaphors for the continued woes of Las Vegas (and little else).

Caesars believes that The Linq Project can bring a breath of fresh air to The Strip, even as they spend a fraction of  the cost of a new mega-resort. The Linq plan makes a certain amount of sense, and will probably be successful enough. Even I'm looking forward to taking a spin on the wheel and enjoying the view of the glittering Strip at night, despite my usually cynical disposition.
That said, the fact that a big Ferris Wheel and outdoor mall is the most innovative and ambitious new construction happening on The Strip is a bit depressing and grim. In 2008, I read a great Vegas business book called Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kekorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas (not to be confused with Abba's criminally catchy The Winner Takes it All), by Wall Street Journal writer Christina Brinkley (not to be confused with Christie Brinkley, muse of Billy Joel's criminally catchy Uptown Girl) which argued that the arm's race to build bigger and more luxurious resorts in Las Vegas would never end. But the bubble did indeed burst as our entire financial system collapsed, bringing the ridiculous growth in the City of Sin to a screeching halt. Now most of the truly innovative development in Las Vegas is happening in Downtown, but most of those new openings are cool little Bars and Coffee shops... some of which are opening in decidedly non-upscale shipping containers.

As much as I've raved about how Downtown is rapidly evolving into a truly cool and livable neighborhood, recent years have seen a decline in the sort of razzle dazzle that defines The Strip. I'm all for Vegas becoming a more livable city with interesting and unique small businesses, but I really do love the gargantuan stupidness of the city's famous boulevard.

The downscaling of ambition can be seen everywhere on The Strip. Take a look at the dining scene... while name chefs opened Five Star restaurants seemingly once a week way way back in 2007, these days new restaurant openings tend to be more middleclass Gastropubs serving decent Burgers and Beer (I'm not complaining, mind you... I love burgers and beers). Meanwhile, most high roller gamblers are taking their Black Jack money and making bets in Macau, where Vegas developers like Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn are opening the kind of lavish resorts they used to build in the Nevada desert.

I prefer an intimate little dive bar with a good juke box and an eclectic crowd on most nights, but when I go to Vegas I expect to experience the crazy, over the top synthetic spectacle of it all. Perhaps it's just recession fatigue setting in after nearly four years of terrible economic news, but I'm disheartened by the lack of new stupidity and wastefully excessive resorts themed after El Dorado or The Tower of Babel going up on The Strip. My preference is leans towards the more artsy and indie-friendly environs of Downtown, but I want The Strip to come back to vividly stupid life as well. The idea of a Las Vegas that features a neighborhood filled with Vegan bakeries, Craft Breweries, venues that feature the best indie rock and alt comedians just down the street from a massively stupid Strip of glittery fakeness makes it one of the most surreal cities on the planet, and the perfect place to get good and drunk for an entire lost weekend of madness.

The bottom line is that The Linq sounds like a fun and unique addition to The Strip, but it lacks the huge ambition of the most impressive resorts that seemed to open every few months during the first half of the 2000's. Las Vegas represents the dumber side of the American psyche, but when the best the city can do is build a big flashing Ferris Wheel, it's proof that our depressed psyche is in desperate need of some dumbness. We need the stupidity back. We need the rampant over-building of ludicrous Casino Resorts back. We need The Strip to get its groove back.

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