Construction clan behind Vegas' newest property, M

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VEGAS-MEXTERIORIf Steve Wynn was the visionary behind modern-day Las Vegas' themed resorts, chic rooms and high-brow entertainment, then it was the Marnell family who put feet to his dream. Not to mention concrete, steel and glass. Lots and lots of glass.

Through its Marnell Corrao construction firm, led by Anthony Marnell Jr., the family built such paradigm-shifting projects as the Mirage, Excalibur, Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas, in addition to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and five Cirque du Soleil theaters.

The family built and ran the off-Strip Rio All-Suite hotel-casino. Opened in 1990, the Brazilian-themed property targeted locals, drive-in traffic from Southern California and business and leisure travelers eager to escape the Strip's bustle. The Marnells sold it to Harrah's Entertainment for an eye-popping $888 million in 1999.

A family affair

Now, after a decade out of the casino business, the family is set to re-enter the scene with the March opening of the M Resort. The $1.8 billion luxury property sits on 100 master-planned acres at Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway, about eight miles south of the Mandalay Bay.

M Resort will have 390 rooms and a 92,000-square-foot casino with 1,900 slot and video poker machines. Other amenities include a 100,000-square-foot pool and entertainment piazza; 60,000 square feet of convention space; a 23,000-square-foot spa, salon and exercise area; and a 14-screen cineplex.

M Resort will be only the second hotel on the southern part of the Strip, joining the two-year-old Southpoint. At the helm is Anthony Marnell III, a software company owner who once worked as a busboy at the Rio. Marnell persuaded his father to build M Resort, envisioning an upscale property that mixes modern twists and the family charm that made the Rio a hot spot.

"My father pioneered a lot of things at the Rio," Marnell said. "We have the first big nightclub, Club Rio. It was converted showroom space. My dad was roundly criticized for this, and now Vegas is a nightclub capital. The Voodoo Cafe was the first rooftop restaurant in town. We invented bottle service. One time, we sold out all the Cristal in town. And we really focused on fine food."

In fact, the elder Marnell, and not Steve Wynn, is credited with starting the celebrity chef craze, luring French culinary superstar Jean-Louis Palladin to the Rio.

M Resort will have a wine cellar and a rooftop restaurant among its nine dining options.

Marnell hopes locals remember the service and family atmosphere of the Rio. He said M Resort could draw a large share of smaller conventions, groups of a few hundred, by focusing the intimacy provided by a boutique property.

"A group of 150 will have a hard time finding convention space on the Strip for a reasonable price," Marnell said. "We'll have an advantage with this group.

"Because we're smaller, they can feel like they have the entire resort to themselves," he added. "We'll offer a higher-end product that's value-priced."

The story of M

When the family sold the Rio to Harrah's, the younger Marnell stayed on, working in casino and VIP marketing for Harrah's Entertainment Worldwide. He left in 2000 to start Tririga, a software company that helps clients reduce operational costs. Five years later, Marnell brought in an executive to run the company (he's still the majority shareholder) so he could focus on getting back into gaming, this time as an owner.

In June 2006, the family bought the Saddle West hotel-casino-RV resort in Pahrump, Nev., about 60 miles northwest of Las Vegas. A year later, they bought the Colorado Belle hotel-casino in Laughlin, Nev., 80 miles south of Las Vegas.

The purchases "allowed me to get my gaming license and provided entry back into gaming," Marnell said. "We did significant improvements at both properties. Both are doing well."

Meantime, Marnell had been eyeing a parcel on the south Strip for a major resort. The economy was flourishing, per-acre prices on the Strip were sky high and Wynn Las Vegas was ushering in a new era of multibillion-dollar projects. In other words, it wasn't the best time to try to build a stand-alone property in the central or northern parts of the Strip. But the southernmost tip seemed ripe for the plucking.

"When the Southpoint opened, there was no infrastructure there. But I knew it would come," Marnell said. "We put together 30 acquisitions over 18 months to get this property."

MGM Mirage's $160 million investment helped Marnell secure additional financing, which was crucial as the economy soured and tight credit markets killed some Strip projects and delayed others. Tightening credit markets forced Marnell to temporarily shelve plans for a 1 million-square-foot retail mall adjacent to the property.

In spite of the financial doldrums, Marnell is confident M Resort will carve out a niche on the Strip. So confident, in fact, that he reinstalled a gas station that had served as the last fuel stop for outbound motorists. It also helps, he said, that the property will be one of the first properties incoming airline passengers will see.

Marnell thinks of M as a luxury resort, but one just beneath the scale, and prices, of a Bellagio. He's focusing on the upper middle class with discretionary income.

"Our focus isn't so much demographic as it is psychographic," Marnell said. "We want to attract people who like good food, good architecture and good value at affordable prices. We've come from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs in terms of prices. The days of the $100 steak are over. People want memorable experiences that don't cost an arm and a leg."

For more, visit www.themresort.com.

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