Once upon a time in the neon-soaked skyline of Las Vegas, a titan was conceived. Its birth was heralded with great anticipation in the cool winter of February 2007, when the first groundbreaking shovels pierced the ground at the site of Fontainebleau Las Vegas. Then, a true spectacle of the Strip, the Frontier, was still pulsing with life across the street.
Intentions were grand, as Jeffrey Soffer, the leader of a vision, aimed to reveal it as the towering sibling to their Miami haven come October 2009.
But fortune, as she often does, took a whimsical turn. For 16 long years, this would-be tallest occupied edifice in Nevada loomed silently over the Strip, its sleek skeleton a silent testament to an era’s caprice. Ownership changed, names shifted like desert sands, bankruptcy flung its cloak, and constructions ceased and stirred, then ceased once more, until the final march toward completion was resumed.
When the clock strikes midnight on a fated Thursday, the Fontainebleau will fling open its doors to its first wide-eyed patrons, breathing life, at last, into the Strip’s newborn casino resort. Gather ’round, for here unfolds the curious tale of its journey.
In the December of 2008, as the venerable Frontier’s sign was carefully dismantled, the unfinished Fontainebleau stood defiantly across the laneway, its fate hanging by a thread.
The story might have untangled much earlier, had the fates been kinder. The site bore the historical weight of previous incarnations: the Thunderbird Hotel and Casino, transformed in name only to Silverbird, then to El Rancho, before its final curtain call in 1992.
Yet if there was ever a year in history that rivalled the hardships of 1929, it was 2007. A year that saw the great American real estate bubble, pregnant with greed and speculation, burst forth in a cataclysm plunging the world into the Great Recession.
Misfortunes piled on; there were tragedies, and if one were superstitious, curses. A construction worker tragically descended to his demise in August. A concrete slab gave way, a cascade of failures ensuing.
Despite these dark omens, the tower’s pinnacle was reached on November 14, 2008. That peak heralded a precipitous fall.
Come 2009, the financial stewards, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, spooked by a murky economic horizon, retracted their $770 million lifeline; the $2.8 billion project spiraled into insolvency.
Time was unkind to the inert titan. The cranes stilled; their skeletal forms later whisked away. Plush furnishings, once destined to grace Fontainebleau’s expansive suites, found new homes elsewhere at The Plaza and Buffalo Bill’s – a humbling clearance sale of dreams.
From 2009 to 2017, the monolith stood at 70% completion – an emblem of grandeur that never was.
Yet, where some saw folly, others saw fertile ground. Enter Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor, who, in a bankruptcy auction, seized it for a modest $150 million. True to form, Icahn refrained from action until 2017, his patience yielding a sale at $600 million to Steven Witkoff and New Valley, quadrupling his venture.
In the looming shadow of the halted behemoth, Witkoff baptized it anew as The Drew Las Vegas, a tribute to his son, lost to tragedy. There was renewal; there was hope. Marriott International pledged allegiance to the cause in February 2018. An opening was announced, then marred by fires set by intruders and by nature – further tests of resolve.
Even as The Drew Las Vegas seemed to be inching closer to reality, another disaster loomed. The COVID-19 pandemic, a black swan, spread its wings wide, halting progress and scattering plans like poker chips in a whirlwind.
But even the darkest night wanes before dawn. In a whirl of deals and determination, Jeffrey Soffer reclaimed his brainchild through Fontainebleau Development and Koch Real Estate Investments, rescuing the project from the mires of foreclosure in 2021.
A mystery bloomed when Marriott withdrew; yet, undeterred, Soffer persevered without the conglomerate’s pledge.
The Fontainebleau Las Vegas, now steeped in $3.7 billion of investment and aspiration, stood ready, second only in extravagance to the $4.3 billion Resorts World.
“Welcome to the Fontainebleau Las Vegas era,” Soffer heralded, amid the pomp of a ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Today, we open our doors to the world, and welcome our first guests to experience the pinnacle of luxury hospitality.”
A tale 16 years in the making, a story of resilience, and at the stroke of midnight, no longer a whisper in the desert, but an echo of victory – what took you so long?