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February 19, 2009 1:22 PM

Business, Men's

Fear and Clothing in Las Vegas

Despite the grim prospects for 2009, retailers and vendors cite one positive aspect of their current situation: now, at least, they know what they're dealing with. Unlike the last Vegas market, the industry is prepared for soft selling. They've trimmed...

Despite the grim prospects for 2009, retailers and vendors cite one positive aspect of their current situation: now, at least, they know what they're dealing with.

Unlike the last Vegas market, the industry is prepared for soft selling. They've trimmed assortments and open to buys; manufacturers have tailored their collections and adjusted pricing. In the immortal words of Tim Gunn, the retail community is trying to "make it work." Outside the convention center, the story is more grim. The culture of spending that fueled Las Vegas' riotous growth over the last 15 years was abruptly turned off this fall, leaving the city in the precarious position; not only did the tourist-based economy begin to slow, but also the glut of new homes in Vegas, once a testament to the city's incredible rise, suddenly became a liability as defaults mounted. In 2008, Vegas reported more than 67,000 foreclosure filings, the second worst in the country.

In some ways, Las Vegas is a parable about the sins of our economy. It's overdeveloped, and overleveraged, its economy essentially relying on consumers' willingness to gamble their money away.

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Now that consumers are reluctant to play figurative roulette with their dollars, Vegas is paying the price and the effects are tangible. On Wednesday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Vegas is the nation's emptiest city, with the highest number of abandoned apartments and homes. Apartment properties just off The Strip are offering months of free rent to help fill vacancies; in their yawning parking lots, landlords fly yellow and red flags hawking their deals.

Taxicab drivers, a garrulous bunch, are quick to share their woes. Ridership is down 75 percent this year, some say. "I used to get 20 to 25 rides in an eight-hour shift," said one driver. "Now I am lucky to get five to 10."

The city is pushing ahead with some construction projects, notably the 67-acre City Center project. But others have shut their doors or suspended construction, like the $4 billion Echelon project, a massive hotel and casino development that halted work last August.

Inside the casinos, there is the familiar jangle of slot machines punctuated by whoops from a lucky craps table. They are not empty, but they are not thronged.

The city's retail industry, which developed a sizzling luxury sector in past years as seemingly every major brand opened one or more outposts here, appears to be suffering. At the Wynn on Sunday night, this reporter watched a chic salesclerk at an empty boutique put her elbows on the counter and thrum her fingers against her cheek. Later she slipped across the hall to talk to the clerk at a similarly empty Jo Malone.

Since then, I've made a point to look into stores as I pass through casinos on the way to this trade show or that. Nine times out of 10, there are no shoppers.

It's clear the city hasn't digested this new reality completely. Steve Wynn recently opened a nightclub at his new casino/hotel, Encore. He called it XS.

Few names could better capture the long-standing spirit of Las Vegas. Even fewer names could be more out of touch with its zeitgeist now.
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