Seven Questions for Architect Tony Marnell

The high-speed rail advocate on what’s next for the Strip, why a Vegas-to-Southern California bullet train is a must and his pick for the 2034 college football title

Tony Marnell

Photo by Jon Estrada

As CEO of Marnell Companies, your fingerprints are on some of the most iconic structures in this city, including Bellagio, The Mirage, M Resort, the Rio and the Forum Shops. What should the Strip resort of the future look like?

It should look like a place that’s appealing and exciting and in demand for the kind of customer base that will be out there in 20 years. And that is the big question: What is that customer base going to look like? What we’re seeing right now is what I call the race to the sidewalk. Everybody is taking the interaction of what was in the casino—the table-game interaction of, “Hey, I’m from Miami!” “Oh, really? Yeah, I’m from Buffalo, New York”—and moving it to the sidewalk. Twenty years from now, are they still going to want to be on the street? Or are they going to want to be back inside?

How can we make sure the Strip remains vibrant in 2034?

My generation—the baby-boom generation—grew up in a country where there was some gamble about you. Generation X, generation Y, the millennial generation are quite risk-adverse. You can see that just by looking in these buildings at midnight, when the line is longer to get into the nightclub than it is to get to a slot machine. Let’s put it this way: Las Vegas wants to stay in the lead, and the leadership—let’s call it the older generation that is leading these companies—is going to have to take a hard look sooner than later at this next generation of customers. These customers are going to find what they want. The question is: Will Las Vegas be the epicenter of what they want for entertainment?

What’s been the best architectural addition to the Valley in the last 20 years?

[Long pause.] Well, I think I’d be prejudiced, but the M Resort moved the ball forward. But the way to answer that question goes back to this Catch-22 circle: What is architecture? If you were to ask 20 people—educated, uneducated—they’d give you a difference answer. You see all the different architecture that you see now because the American society doesn’t have a common goal, and common goals as a group produce great architecture, because there’s a consensus. Right now, there is no consensus. Round, square, upside-down, blue, green—everybody has a different idea about that part of your soul that art touches.

You’re the chairman of XpressWest, the proposed high-speed rail system that would link Las Vegas with Southern California. What stimulated your interest in high-speed rail?

I started looking seriously at it 25 years ago, because it was happening in Japan. I watched it explode in Europe; now it’s exploding in China. And as a planner, which is a part of architecture … it became very clear that the two-lane highway was not going to sustain the mode of transportation that we were going to need out of the Southern California market. You cannot keep making the highways wider and wider and wider, and expect them to work.

How much does the success of XPressWest hinge on California getting its line built, including the Victorville-to-Palmdale connection? Can XPressWest succeed on its own?

Yes, it can. It’s a real market. There’s a very viable demand. What people don’t understand is that the second most profitable, successful rail line in America is from San Diego to Los Angeles on the Amtrak. Now, it needs improvement, but the vision here was a network of connection. But people didn’t want to understand that you have to start somewhere. And by the way, [residents of] the Inland Empire, which is a huge part of the drive into our Las Vegas market, can get to Victorville quicker than they can get to Los Angeles International Airport—a lot quicker. And they can also afford a train ticket for the price of what they’re paying for gas and wear and tear on their car.

So, what are the odds a high-speed train will be bringing Southern California tourists to Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve 2034?

Nothing’s 100 percent. But I would say the odds are at least 90, 95 percent. It will happen. Let me just say this: We—the collective “we” in the United States—have not done a good job at educating the American public about the benefits of high-speed rail. Americans think high-speed rail is something that’s going to happen to them. They don’t understand that high-speed rail is something that can happen for them. But as our population grows to more than 300 million, we need to start looking at [transportation] the way other countries have looked at it. High-speed rail can be very effective here if it’s built in places where there’s demand. And there is demand in this corridor and other corridors.

You’ve lived in Las Vegas nearly your entire life, but you’re also a proud alum of the University of Southern California. So let’s say it’s UNLV vs. USC in the 2034 NCAA football title game: Who you got?

Listen, once a Trojan, always a Trojan. [Laughs.] It’s just part of the rules of the game. But maybe it’ll be real close.