04/25/2002 11:00PM

Everywhere you look, new buildings going up

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It's hard to tell if the Las Vegas metropolitan area - the fastest-growing in the country - adheres to the "build it and they will come" philosophy, or if the city planners are just supplying the demand.

Either way, about 6,000 people move here every month. Even though about 2,000 leave each month, the net gain of 4,000 need a place to live. Tourists mostly see the Strip, which is smack dab in the middle of the valley, but subdivisions continue to spread toward the mountains in every direction.

And a lot of those people like to gamble, so local casino operators have been busy in the past decade building properties on what was once the outskirts of town.

Texas Station, the Fiesta, and the Santa Fe (now Santa Fe Station) were built on the north end of town, while the Resort at Summerlin (now The Rampart) went up on the west side and Sunset Station and The Reserve (now the Fiesta Henderson) were built to the south.

But even the neighborhood casinos are getting neighbors.

The Suncoast was built out west to compete with The Rampart. Green Valley Ranch was built to the south to better serve that booming community. Now, developers are looking to expand more in the north end of town and even to the east.

Out in Lake Las Vegas, situated on Lake Mead 20 miles east of the Strip, construction is underway on the $170 million, 350-room Ritz-Carlton. It is expected to open in November.

A December opening is planned for $122 million Cannery, located at Craig and Losee roads just off I-15 on the north end of town. The property will be run by Millennium Management, which recently took over the Rampart. Plans call for the slot clubs to be linked.

This fall, a beltway to connect I-15 to Route 95 on the north end of town is scheduled to be completed, and plans are in the works for casinos at both junctions: one off of I-15 near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and another even farther north of Santa Fe Station, off Route 95.

Strip isn't standing still

But don't think that the Strip isn't expanding, too. Even though it was hurt more by the tourist downturn after Sept. 11, investors are lining up to build new projects on or near the Strip.

Leading the next building boom in Las Vegas will be Steve Wynn, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Vegas's history. He was the main mover and shaker in the last boom when he built the Mirage, Treasure Island, and then the Bellagio in the 1980's and 1990's. Competitors built the Venetian, Mandalay Bay, Paris, and New York-New York to try to keep up.

Wynn is building the $1.65 billion La Reve on the Desert Inn site he bought two years ago.

The project, which is big enough by itself, will spur other development in a part of the Strip that needs it.

Across the street, where the New Frontier now sits, Phil Ruffin is planning to build a $1 billion San Francisco-themed resort called City by the Bay. As part of that development, Ruffin has teamed with Donald Trump. They announced this past week that they are building a $350 million condominium complex called Trump Tower Las Vegas. The 600-foot tower would be the second-tallest building in Vegas behind the Stratosphere at 1,149 feet. Condos would start at $1.5 million.

Wynn announced this past week that he was going public to raise the rest of his funds. Ruffin has said that once Wynn gets his financing in place it will be easier for him to close his deal.

When those projects are completed, we might see the resurrection of plans to build a London-themed resort at the site of the imploded El Rancho on the north end of the Strip near the Sahara.

In the other direction, work is moving forward on plans to build the $115 million South Beach on Tropicana Avenue, just west of the Strip and I-15. A HoJo and an IHOP are slated for demolition this summer with the project to be completed in 2004. That development will likely prompt Station Casinos to upgrade its Wild Wild West property across the street.

Downtown tries to keep up

The downtown area of Las Vegas, home to Binion's Horseshoe, the Golden Nugget, and other historic casinos, has had a hard time keeping up with more and more tourists going to the glitzy Strip and more and more locals gambling at their neighborhood casinos.

The Fremont Street Experience, the $70 million light and sound show under a 90-foot-high canopy that spans four city blocks, hasn't succeeded the way it was intended. The main problem is that parents come to see it with their kids, but then leave with their kids because they can't take them in the casinos.

The newest attempt to lure people downtown opens Thursday night with the unveiling of Neonopolis, a $100 million entertainment and shopping center. A neon sign museum - a natural for Vegas - with a 100-foot display will be a key attraction, as well as 14 movie theaters, restaurants, sports bars, and retail stores.

Putting it all together

The question becomes: How much more building before the boom goes bust?

Casino companies continue to say they're making less money than they were before the tourism downturn after Sept. 11. But in light of all this expansion, it sounds just like Major League Baseball claiming to be losing millions of dollars, yet owners continuously line up to "lose money" by continuing to buy franchises.

Obviously there are a lot of people with a lot of money who think Vegas is nowhere near its breaking point. Besides, Vegas has been proving skeptics wrong since people said it was getting too big for its britches in the 1950's.