07/04/2003 12:00AM

Still America's gaming giant


Judging by the over quarter-million visitors here for the extended Fourth of July weekend, Las Vegas is still living large as a vacation destination.

But with the opening of The Borgata in Atlantic City, those who watch the industry are wondering how much impact the $1 billion Vegas-style resort will have on Atlantic City as well as Las Vegas. New Jersey gamers are hoping the Borgata does for Atlantic City what The Mirage did for Las Vegas back in 1989.

While there have been 11 megaresort openings in Las Vegas since The Mirage, The Borgata represents the first new casino addition to Atlantic City in 13 years.

Will The Borgata lure gamblers away from Las Vegas?

Most believe - as in 1979 when Atlantic City opened its first casino - that Atlantic City will continue to be an important East Coast feeder for Las Vegas, and that The Borgata will help whet the appetite for the Vegas experience.

Las Vegas continues to be the fastest growing city in the Southwest - with 7,000 a month moving in - and the tourist industry remains its beacon. Even in the face of a sputtering national economy.

A recent study released by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, reveals the number of hotel rooms in Las Vegas is expected grow by 3 percent this year and just 1.4 percent in 2004. Gaming revenue is expected to rise by 2.3 percent this year and 3.3 percent next year, according to the study.

So, then how will Atlantic City stack up to Las Vegas?

Including The Borgata's 2,010 rooms, a total of 3,506 rooms will be added to Atlantic City's inventory by 2005. That's an increase of 30 percent in the next two years.

There will be 5,775 rooms added to the Las Vegas inventory during the same time period. The Venetian just opened its $275 million, 1,013-room tower; Mandalay Bay is building a 1,125-room tower addition to its Mandalay Mile complex; a 950-room expansion is under way at The Bellagio; and Steve Wynn's $2.4 billion La Reve project, now dubbed Wynn Las Vegas, will add a new megaresort and another 2,700 rooms when it comes on line in 2005.

Those additions represent only a 7 percent increase in the number of hotel rooms on the Strip.

Other positive indicators for solid growth in Las Vegas include the recent purchase of the 2,567-room Aladdin hotel casino, which filed for bankruptcy in 2001. A group led by Planet Hollywood cofounder Robert Earl promises to revitalize the Strip megaresort and re-theme the property as a Planet Hollywood hotel casino. Construction work continues on "The Cloud," a huge multimedia structure that anchors the Rouse Company's $1 billion expansion of the Fashion Show Mall on the Strip.

Off the Strip, Partners Timothy Poster and Thomas Breitling recently purchased the Golden Nugget properties of downtown Las Vegas and Laughlin. Both in their 30's, Poster and Breitling founded Travelscape.com. And, Las Vegas real estate developer Nick Azouz is moving ahead with the Emerald River project on 275 acres in Laughlin. The new hotel casino along the Colorado River will feature a 150-slip marina and 620 attached residential units.

In a recent annual shareholders' meeting at Mandalay Bay, the company's president and CFO, Glenn Schaeffer, reaffirmed the industry's confidence in Las Vegas.

"We don't have oversupply on the Strip," he said.

He also reminded those shareholders that the Strip is one of the few places that prices and demand for rooms go up every year.

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