01/03/2003 1:00AM

City showed its resiliency in 2002


The past year in Las Vegas will be remembered as the year of the rebound.

Amid increased competition from the proliferation of gambling throughout the country (and beyond through the Internet), and renewed union contracts for a majority of gambling resorts, Las Vegas rebounded over the last 12 months.

After thousands of workers were laid off in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the city's major industry - which employs some 189,000 people - has recovered to almost pre-Sept. 11 levels.

During the year, confidence in the Las Vegas tourism business was reassured with the commitment of billions of dollars for new projects and expansions of existing properties. Casino mogul Steve Wynn finalized financing for his $2.4 billion Le Reve mega-resort at the old Desert Inn location, a project which has already broken ground.

New towers were either approved or started at the Venetian, Bellagio, and Mandalay Bay. In addition, the sprawling Mandalay Convention Center, Hilton time-share towers, Turnberry condominium towers, the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, and the Ritz-Carlton at Lake Las Vegas were being completed. Local market expansions included the Cannery and Stations Casinos announcement of a Summerlin project, while Coast Casinos expanded The Orleans and Suncoast complexes.

Las Vegas worked through the closure of the city's hometown airline when National Airlines folded shop in November. After a federal loan was denied, the void left by the third-largest carrier to Las Vegas prompted America West and Southwest airlines to add routes, as did low-fare newcomer JetBlue.

Casino giant MGM Mirage led the way into the Internet game when it launched an offshore Internet gambling site. Following suit, owners of the Venetian, Park Place Entertainment (parent company of Bally's and Paris/Las Vegas), and Binion's Horseshoe announced plans to enter cyberspace.

The 50,000-member Culinary Union of Las Vegas averted a strike by its membership when the big Strip casino companies agreed to a new contract.

The $1.2 billion Aladdin operated under bankruptcy protection while would-be suitors came and went. While ownership of the megaresort is certain to change hands this year, some other properties fell because of competitive pressures.

Vacation Village, located at the south end of the Strip off the I-15 highway, and the Maxim, located in the shadow of Bally's Las Vegas, both closed their doors last year. Gambling pioneer Jackie Gaughan entered an agreement to sell his group of downtown hotel casinos, which includes the Plaza at the top of famous Fremont Street.

Thomas Gallagher, CEO of Park Place Entertainment, resigned his post as bottom-line pressures built and was promptly replaced by Wallace Barr. Conversely, Phil Satre stepped down after a successful run as Harrah's Entertainment CEO and turned the company reins over to Gary Loveman.

Two gaming giants, Ralph Engelstad of the Imperial Palace and William Bennett of the Sahara, died just a month apart. Each man represented individual ownership of major Strip properties. They teamed up to finance and build the successful Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Bennett is also credited for opening Las Vegas to families with his vision at Circus Circus Corporation.

Congress again failed to pass a college betting ban bill, but, with leading proponent Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., back in a power role on Capitol Hill, the bill is sure to be resurrected.

With official returns yet to be published, the 250,000 New Year's Eve revelers that jammed Las Vegas on Tuesday can be interpreted only as a bright indicator for 2003. Bright as the neon that lines the famous Las Vegas Strip.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.