Real Estate Rebel: How the Late David Atwell Set the Standard for Megadeals on the Strip

Courtesy Heather Atwell

Courtesy Heather Atwell

When we look at the Strip, the builders get all the headlines. We read about the towering figures who transformed the Strip with Caesars Palace, Bellagio and CityCenter. They take an empty space—which, given our penchant for implosions, might be relatively recently empty—and create something that benefits the community.

But before those city-defining resorts were built, they had to secure the land to build upon. That’s where David Atwell came in. Atwell, who died November 25 at the age of 63, is an almost-native Las Vegan. Moving here with his family in 1955, he grew up watching the city grow up around him. Armed with a degree from UNLV, he went into real estate in the mid-1970s, soon focusing on hotel and casino transactions. Among the numerous deals that Atwell helped broker, three stand out as particularly important to both his career and the current shape of the Strip.

The first came in 1979, near the start of Atwell’s career, when he put together several parcels north of Caesars Palace that housed a number of low-density buildings, including the Sage & Sand motel, Caesars Shell, Holiday Texaco, Kontiki Apartments and the Deville Apartments. He didn’t have a particular use for the land in mind, but he had a buyer—Caesars World, then the casino’s owners. Atwell was able to sell the Perlman brothers, who then ran Caesars World, on the value of the land (Caesars was then in growth mode, with a new high-end tower at the Palace and expansion into Atlantic City and Lake Tahoe).

It took more than a decade, but Caesars eventually decided to build a shopping mall there—the first time a casino on the Strip had done so. Since its 1992 opening, the Forum Shops has consistently been one of the most profitable retail locations in the country. A 2009 study clocked the Forum Shops with average daily sales of more than $1,400 per square foot, nearly $300 more than their closest rival.

Atwell’s defining deal might have been the 1987 acquisition of the Dunes casino and its golf course in bankruptcy court for Japanese billionaire Masao Nangaku. The $155 million deal was a blockbuster for Las Vegas at the time, and Atwell fended off competition from many of the city’s leading developers, including Hilton Hotels, Kirk Kerkorian, Caesars World, Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson.

The deal presaged the growing importance of international capital in Las Vegas, and while Nangaku’s ownership of the Dunes was not profitable for him (he sold it in 1992 for $75 million), new owner Steve Wynn made the most of the property, demolishing the Dunes to create Bellagio. The land included in the transaction also yielded the Monte Carlo and CityCenter. Had one of the other buyers bested Atwell in bankruptcy court in 1987, it’s likely that the Strip would look much different today.

“That was one of the landmark deals in town,” says Sig Rogich, president of Rogich Communications Group. “He was a tenacious guy who loved what he did and worked tirelessly at it.”

Atwell’s last major deal, the 2007 sale of the Frontier to Elad Properties, illustrated the heights to which the Las Vegas real estate market soared. The record-breaking sale of $1.2 billion—or $33 million an acre—may never be equaled. Although, thanks to the ensuing recession, nothing has risen to replace the Frontier, that site stands as a monument to the power of the Las Vegas dream: Build it bigger and better.

Through all the deal-making, Atwell remained tied to his hometown, particularly through his work with the March of Dimes and the Chamber of Commerce. Rebel fans may remember his singing the national anthem at basketball games. Through it all, he was committed to building the community as well the resort corridor.

“Dave knew how to bring people together to make deals that were in this community’s best interest,” says Jan Jones Blackhurst, former Las Vegas mayor and current Caesars Entertainment executive. “He had global reach, but in his heart he was a Las Vegan.”

“He was a genius at identifying an opportunity and then finding the players to make it work,” says Brett Torino, who has been developing land on the Strip for 20 years. “But his greatest genius of all was his family. And that in my book is what made the guy such a terrific individual.”

Atwell’s career was a reminder that, while the forces that drive Las Vegas development might be global, it takes local know-how to get the deals done.

A memorial service for Atwell is scheduled for 2 p.m. December 8 at the International Church of Las Vegas, 8100 Westcliff Dr.