In these tough economic times, news of a $550 million, job-creating entertainment venue would seem like a cause for celebration in most cities. But 15 years of building audacious, multibillion-dollar megaresorts that attract the world's attention has created outsize expectations for new developments in Las Vegas. This may be contributing to the somewhat muted public response to Caesars Entertainment's Linq project.
Located between the Imperial Palace and O'Sheas and across the street from Caesars Palace, the Linq will feature 178,000 square feet of restaurants, bars and clubs; 70,000 square feet of entertainment space; and 37,000 square feet of retail, spread across a quarter of a mile. The project's signature feature will be the 550-foot High Roller, billed as the world's largest observation wheel.
By all accounts, the Linq represents a paradigm shift for Vegas, with the entertainment value concentrated in an outdoor promenade. Caesars officials said it represents the next generation of local development.
During last month's press conference announcing the Linq, executives laid on the hype. Caesars' executive projects director, David Codiga, said it would redefine the Vegas skyline. Jan Jones, senior vice president of communications and government relations, predicted that the Linq would boost visitation since it's likely the only project on the docket for foreseeable future (multibillion-dollar projects such as Fontainebleau and Echelon Place sit mothballed due to the economy.)
"When you give them a new reason to come to town, they'll be here," Jones said. "Linq will be that reason."
For his part, Greg Miller, senior vice president of development for Caesars, called the High Roller a "one-of-a-kind, audacious observation wheel" on which a "best-in-class team" has been working for years.
"We've got the world's best engineers [developing this attraction]; we've also partnered with a company to bring us unique retail and restaurant tenants," Miller added. "And we've worked with our bankers to get all the funding. We have it all: This project will get built."
Historical changes afoot
A rendering of the Linq's Central Plaza shows a vibrant outdoor experience, with streetscapes lined with trendy eateries, sidewalk shops, club venues and, of course, the observation wheel (Caesars officials insisted the High Roller is not a Ferris wheel).
"We are enhancing the allure of the resort experience in a coveted location, introducing an exciting new offering not only for guests occupying our own 24,000 Las Vegas hotel rooms but also for all who live in and visit Las Vegas," Gary Loveman, chairman, president and CEO of Caesars Entertainment, said in a statement. "The Linq is going to be the new address for fun at the center of the Las Vegas Strip."
Though not the Strip's first large, mixed-use promenade -- the 80,000-square-foot Hawaiian Marketplace in front of the Polo Towers features retail and dining -- the Linq is the most expensive and ambitious. The Linq will include upgrades to three large Caesars resorts and O'Sheas casino, popular for its beer pong games.
A new pedestrian bridge will connect the Linq to the Flamingo hotel-casino to the south. On tap for the Imperial Palace is a casino remodel, a new hotel reception area (to be introduced in phases), an updated facade and a new porte cochere. Plans call for razing O'Sheas and rebuilding it within the reconfigured Imperial Palace. On the Linq's north side, a guest walkway will lead from the Carnaval court outdoor plaza at Harrah's Las Vegas through the Imperial Palace to the project.
The change might upset Flamingo, Imperial Palace and O'Sheas regulars, but Jones said the finished product will satisfy everyone. "We don't need another big box [project]. We live here, and we see all the headlines about the economy and unemployment. But to the rest of the world, we're [still] Las Vegas. We're the entertainment capital of the world. We need to think outside of the box. The world expects something like Linq from us."
The Linq is scheduled to open in mid-2013, followed by completion of the observation wheel in late 2013. Caesars estimates that the Linq will employ about 3,000 construction workers and create 1,500 permanent jobs once it opens.
The Linq's tenant mix will reflect its desire to attract Gen X and Gen Y clientele, ages 21 to 46. Caesars officials said a significant portion of this demographic, whose market share is estimated to grow to 52% of Las Vegas visitor spending by 2015, want an atypical Vegas experience.
Caruso Affiliated, which has helped develop popular mixed-use streetscapes in Los Angeles such as the Grove and the Americana at Brand, has been tapped to scour the world for retail and restaurant partners.
Caruso CEO Paul Kurzawa said interest among prospective tenants is high. "Vegas is the only place you would do such a unique project," he said. "It's a place that businesses want to be."
Caesars officials hope the Linq's anchor attraction, the High Roller, can lure a chunk of the millions of pedestrians who pass through the corridor; nearly 21 million passed by the Imperial Palace and O'Sheas from December 2009 to November 2010, according to Caesars' estimates.
The 550-foot observation wheel will boast 360-degree views from 28 transparent, spherical cabins, billed as the world's first. Each cabin rotates and can hold up to 40 people, for a riding capacity of 1,120, which is slightly below popular Disney rides that generally accommodate up to 2,000 guests per hour. The cabins will also be available for private charters.
"We have more than 50 engineers working on the High Roller, the same engineers who designed the London Eye, the observation wheel in Shanghai and [Beijing's] Bird's Nest [Stadium]," Codiga said. "We factored in environmental issues: wind, heat. We ran tests. We did everything to make it a safe, spectacular, one-of-a-kind attraction."
Another facet of the Linq is the Talisman Experience, a personal, real-time marketing and content distribution program. Consumers can opt in and share content, discover premium offers, order tickets and merchandise, make reservations and receive notifications through personal mobile devices. Caesars' 40 million Total Rewards customers will be able to redeem points in the Linq's restaurants, bars, stores and clubs.
The Linq is one of two observation wheel-anchored, mixed-use projects proposed for the Strip.
In March, the Clark County Commission approved the Skyvue Las Vegas Super Wheel project. Plans call for 200,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment options, including a 500-foot Ferris wheel and amusement park on 39.5 acres at Las Vegas Boulevard and Mandalay Bay Road, near the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino.
The Skyvue wheel will have 40 heated and air-conditioned passenger cabins with a capacity of 25 passengers each and is scheduled to be completed in the first half of 2013. Eleven acres is being used as part of the first phase.
As interest from retail and restaurant entities grows, Kurzawa expects a corresponding increase in public anticipation for and excitement about the Linq. "Even with the state of the economy, businesses want to expand to Las Vegas and people want to come here. That's a testimony to the project and to Las Vegas."
Caesars officials said the Linq's location at the Strip's proverbial 50-yard line, combined with upticks in tourism numbers, bode well for the project's viability. Total visitation jumped from 36.4 million in 2009 to 37.3 million last year, with 58% of those visitors traveling here by automobile. Approximately 24.1 million cars annually traverse the area (66,000 per day). There are 93,600 rooms within 2.5 miles, and those rooms boasted a 90% occupancy rate from December 2009 to November 2010, according to tourism estimates.
"People are interested in Las Vegas," Jones said. "The Linq will bring people together in a new dynamic. Its [amenities are] all outside, not inside a casino. It's all about community."