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Steve Friess: My Mind Is Blown As Fontainebleau Las Vegas Nears Completion

Written By Steve Friess | Updated:
Steve Friess State Of Play The Fontainebleau Rises

State of Play with Steve Friess

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.


 

I left Las Vegas for semi-dead when I moved away in 2011.

The little engine that couldn’t stop building and expanding had sputtered and crashed into a gruesome economic abyss. The maxim that Vegas was recession-proof was shown as the fallacy it was. It would re-emerge, I knew, but it would suffer a cold, dark winter of the soul first.

As a writer, I found one particular image especially useful as a metaphor: A mammoth, awkward-shaped blue-glass hotel-casino that had risen in an ungainly spot at the north end of the Strip to be the state’s tallest hotel but was unable to outrun the Great Recession.

The Fontainebleau.

Sad, ill-conceived, over-ambitious, ignorant-of-the-market, weirdly financed, poorly located Fontainebleau. I predicted in 2011 in an interview with KNPR that it would “probably just stand there for a long time.” Two years later, I wrote in the Las Vegas Weekly that it “still towers as a mocking monument to boomtown hubris.”

It remained thus for even longer than I expected, but only because I just assumed sooner or later someone would blow it up as a New Year’s Eve spectacle. MGM Resorts, after all, took down the unfinished, sore-thumb element of CityCenter, the starchitect-designed hotel-condo Harmon. Design problems prevented it from opening when the rest of the complex did in 2009, and it was demolished in June 2014.

Much to pretty much everybody’s surprise, that’s not how this went.

Vegas has been on a roll and the Fontainebleau is a prime example

The F’bleau — as we in the Vegas blogosphere nicknamed it because who could remember if had one or two e’s? — endured, though. Nobody was ever quite sure what to do about or with it.

Last week, though, news came that it has an opening date: Dec. 13. There were press photos released of the 150,000-square-foot casino floor and a pool. Its on-again, off-again, on-again CEO, Jeffrey Soller, says it seems on track for the requisite licenses. There’s a list of chefs with Michelin stars set to open restaurants there. Rumors of Justin Timberlake performing at the opening are circulating although, to be fair, that rumor would have been much more interesting and impressive 15 years ago when the place was originally supposed to open and JT was still at the top of the charts.

But hey, this actually seems to be happening. The odds of that were so incredibly slim, a bookie would’ve stopped taking money on it when Barack Obama was still in office. Heck, this was about as unlikely as the notion that Las Vegas would someday land a professional hockey team, the city would go mad for them and they’d win it all before it was old enough for first grade.

Which is to say, Vegas has been on a roll. And the realization of the long-damned F’Bleau is the latest proof.

Fontainebleau has endured ownership and name changes

To remind everyone just how long this place has been gestating, I wrote in USA Today in 2008 about the then-groundbreaking (actually, still groundbreaking) idea of providing every guest room with an iMac. The F’Bleau was being touted as super-modern, with much-ballyhooed touch-screen wayfinders and a plan for a massive antenna on the roof to ensure cell and Wi-Fi access throughout the place. At the time, phone service in the depths of most Vegas resort fortresses was often pretty horrible.

But the place was also cursed even before it had money problems. Just look at everything F’Bleau has endured to become the oldest brand-new casino in Vegas:

  • February 2007: Eleven months after initially planned, groundbreaking occurs. Without that delay, the place might have opened before CityCenter and Cosmopolitan Las Vegas.
  • July 2007: Iron workers stopped working for three days to demand better safety measures on the job site.
  • August 2007: A construction worker dies after a 30-foot fall. Also, a few days later, a concrete slab in the garage fell, and caused two lower floors to collapse.
  • September 2008: Two months after Lehmann Brothers, the bank whose doom is seen as the first major trigger for the Great Recession, goes bust. Lehmann was financing a part of the resort’s shopping esplanade.
  • April 2009: Several major banks renege on financing.
  • May 2009: President and CEO Glenn Schaeffer is among the executives who leave.
  • June 2009: F’Bleau files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and halts construction.
  • November 2009: Carl Icahn buys the 70%-finished project for $151 million.
  • October 2010: The furnishings are sold off, mainly to the remodeling Plaza Las Vegas in downtown Vegas and Buffalo Bill’s in Primm.
  • August 2017: Icahn sells the property for $600 million.
  • February 2018: The new owner, the Witkoff Group, partners with Marriott to complete what is to now be called the Drew Las Vegas. Construction restarts.
  • March 2018: An intruder sets fires around the property, causing $10 million in damage.
  • April 2019: The new opening date, planned for early 2022, is pushed back to second quarter of 2022.
  • March 2020: COVID strikes, shutting down construction and Las Vegas in general.
  • February 2021: Soffer buys the project back, restores the F’Bleau name.
  • November 2021: Construction restarts again.
  • July 2023: A rooftop fire breaks out.

F’Bleau goes from overachiever to underdog

There’s no proof that the F’Bleau’s curse is over, to be sure. So much can still go wrong. But if this place actually hits its Dec. 13 opening mark, what a comeback story it will be.

Of course, that assumes the place is a success once people are allowed in. I’ve no doubt there’ll be an especially high curiosity factor given everything that’s happened. But I still have serious doubts about its long-term fortunes.

It’s still not in a walkable location for anyone. The interior photos passed around are pretty, but there’s a certain sameness to this gargantuan, cavernous version of elegance that has now made it strangely ordinary as a follow-up to, most recently, Resorts World. The branding of F’Bleau that is supposed to be so evocative because of its landmark sister property in Miami, probably doesn’t resonate quite the way Soffer thinks it does.

But hey, it’s time for them to prove me wrong. If so, the F’Bleau will have taken a classic Hollywood arc like Tom Cruise in just about everything — from the arrogant, over-confident big talker to the chastened, humbled, comeback kid.

I, for one, once reveled in its misery. Now, I root for F’Bleau to triumph.

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Photo by John Locher/AP photo; illustrated by PlayUSA
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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