04/01/2005 12:00AM

South Coast boon to South Strip

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Much attention has been focused upon the casino-hotels near the intersection of Desert Inn and the Las Vegas Strip, and for good reason.

The new $2 billion Wynn Las Vegas is scheduled to open on April 28. Next door, the Venetian has been so successful that owner Sheldon Adelson is building a second tower, which he insists be one story taller than Steve Wynn's mammoth casino-hotel.

Across the Strip, it's more than rumor that the Stardust and New Frontier will either be imploded and rebuilt or renovated far beyond current recognition.

If you're a tourist coming to Las Vegas, it's a good time to take pictures of that neighborhood because five years from now it'll look completely different.

Another area you might take some snapshots of is the South Strip area below Mandalay Bay and the I-215 beltway. All you see now is the former Belz Outlet, now renamed the Las Vegas Outlet Center, at Las Vegas Boulevard and Warm Springs. Below that are a few condominium complexes and rental properties. There are signs of impending housing communities that commercial developers have planned. But what you see mostly is space, wide-open desert space.

All that is changing, and leading the charge is Michael Gaughan, Jr., son of the Coast Casinos chief executive, Michael Gaughan. The son is heading the new South Coast, being built at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Silverado Ranch Road.

The $500 million South Coast will open in early 2006 with 662 rooms, a 16-theater movieplex, seven restaurants, floor space for 2,400 slot machines, and 150,000 square feet of event space. It'll be a typical first-class facility that Coast customers are accustomed to.

More important is what South Coast signifies - that the South Strip will be a major player in the coming decades in Las Vegas.

The South Coast will be the magnet that a McDonalds franchise used to be. Twenty years ago, when McDonalds was the unquestioned king of American fast foods, McDonalds would carefully research where to build each new franchise. Once the company started building, you would see other fast food chains buy up adjacent property so that they could build their own restaurants. Other companies knew that McDonalds' research was flawless.

The Silverton casino, located at Blue Diamond Road and the I-15, just west of Las Vegas Boulevard, is undergoing a $150 million renovation. Now a second hotel tower is in the works, as well as the possibility of a second casino and a master-planned housing community.

Station Casinos owns a 55-acre tract around the intersection of the South Strip and Cactus Avenue. It hasn't announced plans for that space yet, the Stations Casinos plate filled for the time being with the construction of the $800 million Red Rock Station.

Other developers own prime pieces of real estate on the South Strip that are already zoned for gaming.

It's an amazing growth cycle that goes against the trend of the current U.S. economy. The only thing we Las Vegans seem to lack is water, but we have just recorded the second-rainiest winter in recent history.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up radio show.