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O.C. Service Firms Winning Big in Vegas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs visits Las Vegas regularly, and each time she does, she hits most of the hotel-casinos in town.

But Brinkerhoff-Jacobs isn’t a gambler. She goes to Vegas to do research, marketing and project administration for Lifescapes International, a Newport Beach landscape architecture firm that is bringing home big bucks by helping design the desert playground.

The commercial building boom in Las Vegas--where more than $6 billion worth of new casinos, hotels and retail centers will open in the next two years--has rescued scores of businesses that might have withered in the Southern California recession and development crunch.

Lifescapes was a pioneer in showing the gambling town’s building barons that they needed the entertainment and theme park expertise that many Orange and Los Angeles county businesses could bring.

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“The direction Vegas is heading requires very specialized services from firms with entertainment venue backgrounds, and all the expertise is in Southern California,” says Eddie Martinez Jr., a partner at Walnut-based theme park planner EME Entertainment.

Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, whose father started Lifescapes 40 years ago, figures that the casino industry now accounts for 70% of the company’s revenue.

Southland firms that have wooed Las Vegas property owners say the marriages they have made have provided growth, profitability and entree to markets all over the world.

“What keeps firms likes ours busy is that visitors now demand the level of quality you’d find at Disneyland, and these casino owners have tons of money and are willing to experiment,” says Brinkerhoff-Jacobs.

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In the last two years alone, casino and hotel developers in Las Vegas have completed nearly $2 billion worth of new projects.

Another $1.1 billion worth of resorts and shops is scheduled to open in 1997, starting with the grand opening Friday of the 2,035-room New York New York hotel and entertainment complex. And a staggering $5 billion worth of commercial and retail development should come on line in 1998, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

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Lifescapes found Vegas in 1984 when Brinkerhoff-Jacobs heard industry leaders predict that the next growth area for landscape architects and other design firms would be in resort and gambling development.

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Although the company was running at full capacity doing work for local home builders, Brinkerhoff-Jacobs began doing her own research and soon became convinced that while the Southern California housing boom would bust at some point, the Las Vegas resort market was about to explode.

She began making the rounds and her efforts paid off in 1986, when Lifescapes won the contract to design interior and exterior landscaping for the $700-million Mirage. Owner Steve Wynn, a fan of the classic adventure tale about Robinson Crusoe, wanted to build a South Seas island fantasy in the desert.

Wynn liked the company’s work so much that he has kept Lifescapes as his only landscape designer. The company also has done the landscape and outdoor design for the $1-billion Treasure Island hotel-casino complex and is doing the same for the $1.3-billion, 3,000-room Bellagio complex scheduled to open in 1998.

And, working for a consortium of 160 casino and hotel owners, Lifescapes planned the $13-million re-landscaping of the 4-mile-long Las Vegas Strip.

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That job entailed removing all the existing plantings and replacing them with nearly 1,500 towering palm trees, 85,000 shrubs and 3 1/2 acres of turf--all irrigated through a unique underground system that minimizes evaporation in the hot desert summers.

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EME, the Walnut-based theme park planner, also found that its expertise was a perfect fit for Las Vegas.

The company specializes in what Martinez calls “concept design,” or taking the developer’s theme and generating full-blown plans, renderings, color schemes and scale models that bring the ideas to life before ground is broken on the project.

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The company’s first Las Vegas project was for Caesars Palace when the hotel and casino decided in the late 1980s that visitors to Vegas could be induced to go shopping for more than tacky T-shirts and souvenir packs of playing cards.

The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, which opened in 1991, shocked retail industry analysts by pulling in average revenue of $1,200 a square foot that year--four times the national norm.

The success of that project and the enthusiastic public reception of themed hotel-casinos like the Mirage and MGM Grand have created a whole new market--the non-gaming venue.

EME, for example, just completed the master plan for a 60-acre sports-themed entertainment center to be located just outside downtown Las Vegas.

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And Lifescapes recently signed a contract to design the outdoor plaza of the $110-million, 2.8-acre Showcase retail center to be built near MGM Grand. The mall will lead visitors into a complex of stores and restaurants featuring a state-of-the-art interactive game arcade and a Coca-Cola memorabilia emporium marked by a 100-foot-tall Coke bottle towering over the strip.

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Costa Mesa architect McLarand, Vasquez & Partners is another local firm riding the Las Vegas express. Partner Carl McLarand says the company recently was selected to help develop a master plan for development of Union Pacific Corp.'s 184-acre property--formerly a railroad freight yard--which lies between the Vegas strip and Interstate 15.

McLarand, Vasquez also has been doing land planning and architecture for Howard Hughes Development Corp.'s residential and business park area just outside Las Vegas.

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The city’s commercial growth “has been a dream come true for us and a lot of other businesses,” says Michael B. Jackson, a graphic artist whose Tustin-based Paintin’ Place Inc. has bloomed along with the Las Vegas strip.

For its first 15 years, Paintin’ Place “was a nice little business that kept up with inflation.” says Jackson. In the last three years, though, the studio has grown from three employees to eight, added a stable of two dozen Southern California artists who subcontract work from Jackson, done a number of overseas projects and doubled its revenue annually.

“Las Vegas is the economic model for the resort and gaming industry all over the world,” says casino architect Paul Steelman. “They don’t want to look like Las Vegas overseas, but having Las Vegas credentials definitely helps when you are bidding on their jobs. They want to feel secure that you know how to handle the special requirements of casino resort design.”

That need has certainly helped Lifescapes. The company’s Vegas credentials recently landed it a job creating an indoor version of Utah’s Bryce Canyon for a New Jersey casino, and it has done resort and casino work in several overseas markets including South Africa and Thailand, where things are so busy Lifescapes has set up a branch office with 15 employees.

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The company’s experiences in Las Vegas also led to a major job much closer to home: The company designed the environment for Universal Studios Hollywood’s recently opened Jurassic Park adventure ride.

Shortly after the Mirage opened, an executive with the studio tour theme park visited the hotel and was wowed by the tropical rain forest that Lifescapes had crafted there.

‘They decided that if we could do that in Las Vegas, we could create the jungle they wanted for their Jurassic Park ride. And we did,” Brinkerhoff-Jacobs says.


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