Casino Mogul Wynn Is Vegas' Biggest Player : Business: Hotel owner wields financial and political power, and is praised for his 'amazing vision' for the city. But the word is: Don't get in his way.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When kidnapers mugged Kevin Wynn and demanded $2.5 million in ransom for her safe return, they were messing with perhaps the most powerful person in this town.

Casino developer Stephen A. Wynn won his daughter's return not by calling authorities, but by paying $1.45 million in hundred-dollar bills--all that he could quickly get his hands on, he said. His handling of the kidnaping accurately suggests that Wynn is frustrated by convention, especially if he has the money to sidestep it.

Indeed, the Wynn story is captured on some of the garishly decorated dollar slots at his most famous hotel, the Mirage.

One is called "Midas Touch" and, yes, Wynn is reportedly the highest-paid executive in the nation. He made $34 million last year--including the value on stock options, Fortune magazine calculated in its annual tally. The hotel from where he chairs Mirage Resorts Inc. shimmers in gold, day and night.

Another dollar slot is called "Nevada Jones" and, yes, Wynn is the leading adventurer in the gambling business. Although his company is not the most financially successful casino operation in the country, he did strike an unchartered course when he opened the place with a fake volcano out front and introduced a new generation of theme resorts along the Las Vegas Strip.

Admirers say Wynn is immersed--obsessed, even--in the Disneyfication of the Strip, eschewing lounge acts and glitzy showgirls for white tigers and dolphins, techno-magic and New Age circus shows, in order to attract a more diverse customer base--which will, he figures, be inexorably drawn into gambling.

But maybe most telling about Steve Wynn is the slogan flashed on the animated marquee in front of his newest project, Treasure Island, which opens next to the Mirage in October and where the pirates, they say, will always win.

"You're Either For Us," the sign warns, "or You're Against Us."

Wynn has put in lights the very philosophy that directs his life, say those who know him: Like a pirate fortified by the booty of smaller conquests, Wynn sees no limits and takes no prisoners.

The son of a compulsive gambler who operated a bingo operation in Maryland, Wynn arrived in Las Vegas as a 25-year-old, invested $45,000 for a 3% interest in the Frontier Hotel and became its slots manager. He looked and talked smart, befriended the most important banker in town and, with the banker's help, purchased a liquor distributorship.

Wynn's first headlines came when he bought from Howard Hughes a slice of property adjoining Caesars Palace, threatened to build there and walked off instead with a $766,000 profit when a nervous Caesars bought the land from him.

He invested in the downtown Golden Nugget and, as a 31-year-old Wunderkind, became its corporate chairman. While elevating the Nugget into a Strip-level hotel-casino of a sort never before seen downtown, he built a Golden Nugget casino in Atlantic City.

He survived a scare when he was brought before New Jersey authorities for having hired an old friend who, it turned out, had associated with a New York crime family. Wynn fired the man and received only a reprimand.

Wynn sold the Atlantic City casino in 1987 for $440 million and sank his profits into the Mirage project. Today, the corporate holdings--the Golden Nugget here and its sister in Laughlin, Nev., Treasure Island and the flagship Mirage--are valued at $1 billion, and Wynn is looking to expand at home and overseas.

And so today, Wynn is something of a legend here, a man slowly losing his eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa but whose vision for Las Vegas is limited only by the ability of his designers to create drawings and models.

He is 51 now, as articulate, charismatic and commanding as they come, surrounded by a wife and two grown daughters (who both work at the Mirage) as handsome as he. He is a man who knows he is on a roll and is parlaying it in ways that are raising eyebrows all around Las Vegas. And the word is: Don't get in his way.

"He's done incredible things. His hotels are monuments to his amazing vision," said one casino executive who--like most others--asked for anonymity. "For that, he is great.

"But dynamic visionaries are accustomed to getting their own ways," the executive said. "Casinos are fiefdoms, a place to feed your ego, and they offer a very intoxicating life. And the problem with Wynn is that you can agree with him 99% of the time, but if you disagree once, you're the enemy. There's no balance in how he takes measure of people."

Wynn can strike out in various ways against those who affront him.

When a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun wrote a column chiding Steve and Elaine Wynn for meddling in athletic affairs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the newspaper editor lost his privileges at Wynn's private, $45-million golf course, Shadow Creek--a place stocked with 20,000 imported pines and exotic wildlife for the pleasure of high rollers, friends and favored employees.

When a radio talk show host, who had formerly been a city councilman, landed a scathing broadside on Wynn's reputation, the show was dropped by the station--after the offender first read four times an on-air apology crafted by Wynn's attorneys.

When the sheriff pulled the work permit for Wynn's casino host because he allegedly allowed mobsters to play at the Mirage, Wynn won the permit back at an appeals hearing--and then sued the sheriff. Wynn claimed that the lawman was retaliating because one of his sons was not promoted as a pit boss at the Mirage, and because another was dropped as an attorney for the Mirage.

And when Donald Trump hired Dennis Gomes, the president of the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, to head his Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, Wynn sued Trump, citing breach of contract and fearing loss of trade secrets.

In his legal papers, Gomes complained that Wynn never allowed him to run the place anyway. He characterized Wynn as a womanizer and said Wynn would launch into spontaneous, denigrating tirades against casino executives in the presence of others, sometimes reducing them to tears.

"His face turned completely red and all puffed up and his eyes bulged and he started screaming at the top of his lungs and banging his head on the table," Gomes said of one Wynn outburst.

A local trade reporter once characterized Wynn as a "sunshine-thunderstorm" kind of guy--a characterization Wynn does not dispute--and business people in town say they alternately admire and abhor the man.

One casino owner, who would not speak for attribution, credits Wynn "for starting a new era in Las Vegas that certainly woke me up to the fact that I was going to fall by the wayside like others have if I didn't get my act together too."

But he complains that "in the early '80s, Steve started walking on water. He thinks he is the industry and that he knows what's best for you."

Wynn brought a political operative onto the corporate staff to conduct polling on behalf of favored candidates. His office also publishes "Silver Voice," a newsletter sent free to about 30,000 senior citizens in Clark County that features recipes--and updates on legislative issues.

"I don't think there's anyone more concerned about the community than Steve Wynn," said Dan Hart, the operative hired after he advised Mayor Jan Laverty Jones in her election two years ago. "He sees the big picture, that you can't have a healthy business climate without balance on the civic side."

Although Wynn typically does not forcefully campaign for any one candidate, last year he sent a letter to voters in a state Assembly district, urging them to turn the incumbent out of office. The incumbent--who had won Wynn's disfavor after criticizing him as a community meddler--won anyway.

But Wynn knows the power of the ballot: He led a drive to register 97% of his employees as voters, and now boasts that his workers account for 10% of the people most likely to vote in any Clark County election.

"It was the right thing to do," Wynn said of motivating a 14,000-member work force to register to vote, but insists that if he dare suggested how they cast their ballots as a voting bloc, "they'd spit in my eye."

The Wynns' presence is felt keenly at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where they are among the strongest boosters of President Robert Maxson. The Wynns and their longtime banker friend, H. Parry Thomas, funded $1 million each for an endowed chair for Maxson when he retires as president--an endowment that collapses when Maxson quits the university for good.

Thus, the Wynns are considered by insiders to have strong influence on Maxson and are believed to have urged Maxson to fire controversial basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.

"What are they going to do, call it Mirage U?" Tarkanian remarked to a local reporter, complaining of what he called the Wynns' heavy-handed involvement in the university's athletic program.

The Wynns, according to university officials, offered the use of the Mirage jet and the hotel to recruit the next basketball coach, Rollie Massimino.

More recently, when Maxson's job was on the line with the elected university regents for his handling of a cheating scandal, the Wynns lobbied heavily in the president's defense. They told one regent--according to multiple sources--that if support for Maxson wasn't forthcoming, the regent could count on opposition in the next election. Two swing votes softened and Maxson kept his job.

Local politicians are now wondering whether the Wynns will exercise their political influence in next year's elections for governor, mayor, sheriff and district attorney. One of the district attorney candidates is a former county prosecutor who serves as Wynn's corporate counsel.

Wynn said when he heard of his attorney's intentions, he immediately offered equal cash donations to both candidates. The other candidate said he declined the gift.

"The Wynns are probably the most potent political force in the state of Nevada at this time," said Shelly Berkeley, a university regent, an attorney for the Sands casino and a former assemblywoman.

Politics notwithstanding, Wynn remains the casino mogul, the man who shook up the Strip with his $670-million hotel--a place that needed $1 million a day to break even, and made it easily from the start.

For added measure, Wynn custom-built a high-tech, 1,500-seat showroom with a stage more than four times larger than Radio City Music Hall, and installed top-draw magicians Siegfried & Roy as permanent entertainers. Their act commands $72.85 per ticket--and sells out each of its 480 shows a year.

"He may call this the hotel business," independent producer Kenneth Feld, the owner of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus said of Wynn, "but he's in the entertainment business and he stands up there with Michael Eisner and Steve Spielberg for their combination of vision and the ability to make it happen."

Meanwhile, the city wonders what Wynn will do with his newest property, the site of the old Dunes hotel on which he will build his fourth hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

He will not reveal details, but has said he wants to put 15 acres of the site under water as a lake for championship skiing and other events. That project will force Wynn to exercise his political influence: Clark County has barred man-made lakes in Las Vegas.

Wynn likes water. He has lagoons in front of the Mirage and Treasure Island--junk water from a tainted aquifer that he first runs through his own water treatment plant.

And he proposed that downtown be reinvigorated by turning Fremont Street into a canal. Las Venice? casino owners asked. He built a scale model, but after viewing it through cameras, he admitted that it did not have the "Wow!" impact he seeks in a project.

Instead, renowned architect Jon Jerde--in town to help the Wynns build a new home--suggested putting three blocks of Fremont Street under a single canopy, to incorporate the downtown casino district as one mega-casino sharing a single promenade. The canopy would provide shade by day, Jerde said, and sparkle at night with a blanket of lights, a Vegas version of the Disney Main Street Parade.

Wynn said he went "Wow!" with that idea. Other casino operators did too, and groundbreaking on the project is set for this fall with the city's blessing.

He cheers the new hotel resorts opening down the street from him and says he will continue to stretch his imagination. "What I do for a living and what keeps me young and happy is creating places where people go 'Wow!' and have fun. It's not that I'm insatiable. It's that I love the exercise."

Special correspondent Joshua B. Good in Las Vegas contributed to this story.

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