LAS VEGAS — It began as the Last Frontier, became the New Frontier and now it is crossing the final frontier.
The Wild West-deco gambling hall that opened in 1942 and became the first themed casino on the Las Vegas Strip is set to be imploded early Tuesday to make way for a $5 billion megaresort planned by IDB Group and Elad Group, the owner of The Plaza hotel in New York.
The low-key joint was once a cowboy village in which customers had to walk outside to get from the restaurant to the casino floor. Elvis Presley performed in Las Vegas for the first time there in 1956, when it embraced the space age.
It returned to its cowboy roots in 1967. Lately, it has been known for bikini bull riding, cheap hotel rooms and $5 craps.
"It's another budget option on the Strip that's gone," said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "The future is really high end."
As an example of the upscaling of the northern end of the Las Vegas Strip, billionaire Steve Wynn has noticed there are fewer 25-cent slot players wandering into his lavish resort from across the street.
"That's because the Frontier and the Stardust are closed," he told a recent conference call.
The New Frontier closed in July, and the Stardust just to the north was imploded in March to make way for Boyd Gaming Corp.'s $4.4 billion casino complex, Echelon, scheduled to open in 2010.
The first of Donald Trump's gold-glass, billion-dollar-plus condominium towers opens behind the New Frontier site early next year. Wynn plans to open the $2.2 billion Encore in early 2009, and the $2.8 billion Fontainebleau is scheduled to open further north later that year.
MGM Mirage Inc. is planning its own multibillion-dollar goliath with Kerzner International and Dubai World just north of Circus Circus for 2012.
The transformation has made land prices soar and is shifting the center of gravity of the Strip northward.
"It just became an epicenter of Vegas," said Phil Ruffin, who sold the 34.5-acre site to Elad for $1.24 billion in May.
Ruffin bought the Frontier in 1997 for $165 million and quickly settled a nearly 6 1/2-year strike by 550 hotel workers, one of the longest job actions in U.S. history.
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Ruffin planned to transform the Frontier until ballooning land values changed his mind.
"It was no genius on my part. It was the property itself that just got better," he said. "Let's say (it was) a hell of a lot of luck."
This historic hotel was the second to open on the Las Vegas Strip, and over its 65 years played host to such entertainers as Ronald Reagan, Wayne Newton and Siegfried & Roy. Billionaire Howard Hughes once owned the Frontier, as did Wynn.
The new owners aim to break ground in the third quarter of 2008 and open in late 2011.
An artist's rendering shows a series of French Renaissance chateau-style towers, complete with the green copper roofs and gable windows that characterize The Plaza in New York. For the Las Vegas version, the buildings are interspersed with swimming pools and greenery.
The developers have said they want to create a luxury hotel with about 3,500 rooms, private residences, retail space and a casino bearing The Plaza brand, all to reach for the highest end of the market.
Elad, which is owned by Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva, is completing a $400 million renovation of The Plaza in New York. The company has said it plans to bring the brand to other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston, London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo and Shanghai.
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