12/31/2004 1:00AM

A year for megamergers


Based on events in 2004, the Las Vegas gaming and tourism industry is expecting a prosperous new year.

One of the top stories in Las Vegas in 2004 was the megadeals of megaresorts, which added to the gaming consolidation on the Las Vegas Strip.

MGM Mirage rocked the gaming world with its $7.9 billion buyout of gaming giant Mandalay Resorts in June. The deal, which is expected to close by March, will give the company major ownership of Strip megaresorts strung from Mandalay Bay on the south end to Treasure Island on the north, a string of establishments that will drive almost $7 billion in annual revenue.

On the heels of the MGM deal came an announcement of Harrah's Entertainment's $9.4 billion buyout of Caesars Entertainment Inc. That deal, announced in mid-July, should also be completed in the first quarter of this year. Boyd Gaming's purchase of Coast Casinos Inc. in February for $1.3 billion and Harrah's Entertainment's purchase of Horseshoe Gaming Holdings' riverboat operations for $1.5 billion both closed in July. All in all, at least seven major casino mergers in 2004 yielded $25 billion in deals.

The expansion boom will continue in 2005, with the $1.8 billion megaresort Wynn Las Vegas set to open in April. Also in the plans are the $4 billion Project CityCenter by MGM Mirage on 66 acres on the Strip between Monte Carlo and Bellagio, the Venetian expansion, and several high-rise projects.

For local homeowners, the Las Vegas real estate market became white hot. Las Vegas home prices skyrocketed in 2004 with the median home values climbing more than fifty percent within the span of a year. In the third quarter of 2003, the median price was $184,300. In the third quarter of 2004, it was $283,200.

Tourism numbers broke records as well. Through October, 36.1 million people had visited Las Vegas, breaking the previous high set in 2000. The city's year-long centennial celebration in 2005, along with the new megaresort openings, should keep volume at record highs this year.

The Binion retrial gained a national following when Rick Tabish and Sandy Murphy, who were found guilty of murdering casino mogul Ted Binion, had the decision overturned and ultimately were acquitted of the charges. The talk show circuit, books, and at least one movie is certain to follow.

There were a pair of high-profile closings and reopenings in 2004. On Jan. 9, downtown landmark Binion's Horseshoe was closed when U.S. marshals seized $1.9 million from the casino cage, ending a 52-year ownership by the Binion family. Harrah's Entertainment cut a fire-sale deal and reopened the landmark, but not before announcing the sale of the property to MTR Gaming, which will take over in March.

The $650 million monorail opened with much fanfare, attracting 30,000 riders on the first day, but soon was closed when a 60-pound tire fell off a coupling only weeks later. Several other setbacks kept the monorail out of service until its reopening on Dec. 24, when more than 40,000 riders gave it a try in the first 24 hours.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman worked hard for the city in 2004, continuing his relentless pursuit of a Major League Baseball team. Goodman predicted that Las Vegas will one day be home to a baseball team. "That, I can guarantee," he said.

Also guaranteed is a prosperous new year for Las Vegas.

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