01/06/2006 1:00AM

Folks keep coming, so Strip keeps growing

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Las Vegas broke another record for tourism in 2005. More than 40 million jetted through McCarran International Airport last year, while traffic up Interstate 15 from Southern California was so heavy that what used to be a five-hour trip could take twice as long.

And this desert Mecca of gaming is keeping pace with the tourism growth.

In 2005, two mega-resort companies leapfrogged one another for the title of "world's largest gaming company" - first, MGM Mirage absorbed the Mandalay Resort Group properties for the title; then, later in the spring, Harrah's Entertainment completed its acquisition of Caesars Entertainment to take the mantle. And Boyd Gaming merged with Coast Casinos to become a bigger player on both the national and local stages.

But the biggest impact came with the opening of Wynn Las Vegas.

Steve Wynn, known as the "Magic Man" in gaming financial circles, brought Las Vegas to yet another level when he opened the $2 billion resort that waves his signature high above the Strip.

The opulent mega-resort has surpassed even Wynn's ambitious targets for daily cash flow, while serving as the cornerstone attraction for the record tourism count.

It also signaled a resurgent focus on the burgeoning north end of the ever-evolving Las Vegas Strip. In the past decade, the Strip has been stretched out more than the national debt. Once bound by Tropicana Avenue on the south and Sahara Avenue on the north, the Las Vegas Strip had more than a few vacant spots between resorts. Now, the Strip boundaries have lengthened from the Stratosphere, north of Sahara Avenue, to the Four Seasons at Mandalay Bay on the south end near Russell Road. With nary a parking space in between, the new skyline boasts huge, brightly lit complexes that reach high into the desert sky.

Wynn Las Vegas is already working on a second resort tower to be announced later this year, and a new tower addition is reaching into the sky next door at the Venetian.

Expansion speculation has been rampant for Wynn's nearest neighbors.

Although the New Frontier is expected to announce plans beyond housing two Trump Tower condominium high-rises, speculation had centered on the major parcel across the Strip at the Stardust complex.

That speculation was put to rest last week when Boyd Gaming finally announced plans to raze the historic-but-dated Stardust Hotel Casino to make way for a $4 billion mixed-use resort on the 63-acre site.

Plans call for the Stardust to remain open through this year, then be demolished in 2007 as the new complex rises from the site for completion in early 2010. The resort, called Echelon Place, will include 5,300 hotel rooms, meeting and convention space of 1 million square feet, 350,000 square feet of retail outlets, and, oh yeah, 140,000 square feet of casino. Echelon Place is the first phase; the entire complex will integrate four separate hotels, one of which will be a joint venture between Shangri-La, the Asian-Pacific luxury hotel group, and Boyd Gaming.

The $4 billion project is the second-most expensive development on the Strip, only trailing the $6 billion MGM Mirage City Center project.