Nevada Newsmakers

News - January 10, 2022 - by Ray Hagar

From his perch as the president of the Sahara Las Vegas resort, Paul Hobson sees a lot of growing and building ahead for the north end of the Las Vegas Strip.

Hobson said on Nevada Newsmakers this week.

Hobson, who runs the Sahara property purchased by Alex Meruelo in 2018, sees positive signs all around him. His pride in the north side was evident when host Sam Shad mentioned that the area was sometimes looked down upon by others in gaming.

Hobson shot back: "By who?"

When he views the future of the north, he can point with pride to his property, undergoing a $150 million renovation that includes what he calls  "best-in-class" restaurants and a Moroccan-inspired Azilo "Ultra Pool' area, complete with a two-story, 10,000-foot LED TV screen.

He can also point to The Strip's newest mega -property, Resorts World, a three-hotel complex on the north end that opened last June. It is the first major hotel-casino to open on The Strip since the Cosmopolitan in 2011.

Then there's the Fountainebleau, a hulking mass of steel that was never finished after starting construction in 2007. It's back under it's original owner -- Jeffrey Soffer -- who is teamed up with the deep-pocketed real estate wing of Koch Industries.

Soffer has said he expects to open the 60-story-plus hotel tower -- one of the tallest on The Strip -- in late 2023.

There's also the expansion of the convention center nearby and the Hard Rock Hotel (with some amazing architecture) coming in down the street. Plus, there's still room to expand, Hobson said.

"We still have the greatest potential of undeveloped Strip lots, unfinished properties," Hobson said. "I think it was very exciting that Resorts World was able to come in and have the wherewithal to finish that project and that extends us a bit further to the north end.

"We're certainly part of that story with Alex's commitment to redeveloping this (Sahara) property and making it a world-class boutique resort with all of these best-in-class features."

Hobson was pleased to see the Fountainebleau buzzing again, especially with the backing of Koch Industries, the largest privately-held company in the U.S.

"I see construction elevators moving up and down each day, there is more activity on that site," Hobson said. "It is something that is going to happen and that, probably more than anything else, from our point of view, spurs the next wave of development here."

The lack of foot traffic, however, has been a recurring issue for north Strip properties. When the Fountainebleau opens, it should help alleviate that issue since it will help bind the properties together and get rid of the acres of open or underdeveloped space that now separates resorts in the north.

"You start creating that type of environment that you see on the center Strip where the whole is greater than the sum of the pieces," Hobson said.

Yet there are 37 acres of open space across the street from the Sahara that has proven to be beneficial for properties in the area. The MGM Festival Grounds is an open-air venue that can host major concerts and other events. It is owned by Phil Ruffin and has a capacity of 85,000.

"Across the street from us, that sort of blank space, that campus, a lot of different people use it for different purposes and depend on it," Hobson said. "Amazon Web Services hosted a city-wide program over there earlier this month (in December). A month before that, there was a festival called Day N Vegas there, with a lot of R&B and Hip Hop acts that brought tens of thousands of people down this way.

"A market like ours kinda needs flexible space like that, that they can use for different large-scale things," Hobson said.

The MGM Festival Grounds may be used as part of the long-awaited NFL Draft, to be held in Las Vegas in late April. The 2020 NFL Draft was scheduled for Las Vegas but was cancelled because of the pandemic.

"I would expect nobody has announced this or made any formal plans, but I would suspect that when the NFL Draft is here in April, some of the program will be hosted there," Hobson said.

The MGM Festival Grounds are also being considered as a Major League Baseball stadium site, if the Oakland A's move to the desert, Hobson said. However, the Tropicana Hotel site, nearn the south end of The Strip, may be the favored location, according to reports.

No formal announcement has been made about the team moving, since the club is also in negotiations with the City of Oakland to remain there. Oakland has recently lost the NFL Raiders to Las Vegas and the NBA Warriors to the Chase Center in San Francisco and want to hang on to its only major professional sports team.

"Things like that are good," Hobson said about the festival site. "I would like to see Mr. Ruffin develop it into a world-class resort or utilize that land for another developer to come in and do something special with it. That is certainly something that could happen in the future."

Hobson, however, is focused on the Sahara.

"We recently opened a restaurant called Chickie's and Pete's, which is an East Coast brand from the Philadelphia area that is a sports bar ... that was named the best sports bar in North America by ESPN," Hobson said. "It will be their first West Coast operation. So that's a best-in-class sports bar at the Sahara.

"We talked about (chef) Jose Andres and Bazaar Meat, that is a best-in-class steak house, that's in the Sahara," Hobson said. "We've talked about the (Azilo) Ultra Pool, that's like nothing else in Las Vegas. I don't know exactly what you would compare it to. It has a giant screen that covers the whole back of it.

The focal point of the Azilo Ultra Pool are giant LED walls – each two stories high and covering 10,000 square feet – wrapped around the pool's perimeter, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. Each wall has multiple screens that can be synchronized or partitioned into smaller screens, so guests can watch multiple games at once.

"This screen covers the entire parking garage and can be used to show the Super Bowl, sports events or create an atmosphere for a DJ on stage at night," Hobson said. "You might say, oh that's kinda like stadium swimming but it is much more impactful. It is is another best-in-class feature.

"The point that I'm getting at is that this is another best-in-class feature that you will find here (Sahara) in a property that might not be as large as a Resorts World but is as very bit as impressive, in terms of  the quality that we are putting forward," Hobson said.