I’d been charmed by the decrepit Happi Inn for years. A two-story motor lodge built in 1973, it sat across from Mandalay Bay without offering even a hint of the same comfort or safety. It was a couple of plain, two-story buildings covered in fading salmon paint, with rotting AC units hanging under each window like loose teeth. For a long time, the marquee sign was missing the panel that said “Happi Inn,” leaving just “MOTEL.”
Inside the front office, which had bars on the windows, the walls were plastered with signs: “Computers CANNOT be connected into our phone system” and “No refunds” and “Effective immediately: Donna will not be loaning money. DO NOT ASK!” There was a shelf of novels across from the front desk for guests and tenants to share—yellowing Danielle Steel and Sidney Sheldon romances.
The motel was a backdrop in Vegas films and television shows—George Clooney had a few shots here in Up in the Air; CSI shot out back. It’s the kind of place where clerks laugh about naked people running out of rooms and tell jokes about hookers robbing johns; a place where Metro ran regular ID checks and not infrequently found a wanted suspect holed up in a room. It was $50 a night for a single, and in April, before the motel closed forever, the clerk volunteered that they’ve never had bed bugs. By Strip standards, it was crappy—or as its clever critics on VirtualTourist.com said, crappi.
But it offered some reality amid the relentless hyper-fantasy of the Strip. In fact, to me the Happi Inn was at times a perfect existential satire about Vegas: a place called happy that is truly degenerate and yet somehow provides inimitable reprieve for passers-through.
More importantly, though, the Happi Inn was also home to about 20 people, who were notified by a bulldozer operator tearing down the motel next door in late April that they’d need to move out by May 7. Developer Howard Bulloch, who owns the property, intends to build an amusement park and retail complex featuring the third-largest Ferris wheel in the world. When the plan was approved unanimously by the Clark County Commission in March, the public zoomed in on the merits of Ferris wheels for economic resuscitation. It was a very Vegas moment—we would be deciding whether to hang our hopes on a massive carnival ride. Just as developers have leaped in and out of the city’s madcap competition to construct a sports arena, would-be visionaries have been in a race to build the first mega wheel on the Strip. Caesars Entertainment had pitched a wheel farther north, and, like Bulloch, it compared the wheel to London’s Eye. Bulloch’s Skyvue would have gondolas that take 20 people up to 500 feet high; meals would be served in the course of a half-hour ride. But what was a stately attraction in London alongside the Thames could only heighten the overgrown midway atmosphere of Vegas, the absurd beauty of a city packed with irony yet mortifyingly unironic. Bulloch was off to the races, beating Caesars to the first crane. The Happi Inn would be crushed to make Vegas amusing again.
The residents of Happi Inn were not so terribly amused. Some had been there three or four years; at least one had worked there more than a decade. Word spread quickly through the motel that they’d have to get out. Most would look for another weekly motel; some didn’t have a car to move their stuff. Several of the residents also worked there, clerking the front desk or doing maintenance or laundry, and their rent was deducted from their paychecks. They stood to lose both their job and their home within two weeks. “Actually, I don’t want to think about it,” said Amber Valle, a twenty-something desk clerk and resident with two small children.
Later I looked for her at the motel, but she was already gone.
We have been here before, of course.
In 2001, a fabulous new attraction was announced for the south Strip across from Mandalay Bay.
As Vegas was about to hit a full-tilt hot streak, about to grace the covers of magazines worldwide as a boomtown extraordinaire, the very same Howard Bulloch pitched a new project: a resort featuring an amusement park ride. It would be called World Port Resorts. Plans included a London-themed hotel-casino, a convention center, a fine arts facility and a 40-story tower in addition to either a roller coaster or giant Ferris wheel. Bulloch was a well-connected land dealer. He had built his reputation as the owner of a Prudential real estate franchise, and started buying Strip property a few years earlier. He and his New World LLC partners, David Gaffin, Bob Unger and Barry Fieldman, had acquired 77 acres, including the site of the beloved Glass Pool Inn and a couple of other motor lodges on the south Strip. This would be the Next Big Thing. The Las Vegas Sun headline read, “End of another era nears as developers plan new megaresort.”
“It’s going to be a real boost for Las Vegas and the Strip,” Bulloch said at the time. The project, Unger told the media, would provide thousands of jobs and be considered the “jewel” of Las Vegas. What’s more, the New World men asserted, the jewel of Las Vegas could serve as the final stop for the promising new monorail that was being built on the east side of the Strip.
Bulloch continued piecing together his Strip property even after the 9/11 terrorist attacks caused an economic slowdown. In 2003, he made a controversial land deal, swapping 19 acres and $350,000 for 64 acres of nearby land owned by McCarran International Airport. Pundits said it was a sweetheart deal arranged by then Aviation Director Randy Walker, who they said hand-picked appraisers to make the land values close to comparable. In cinching the deal, Bulloch had hired Bob Broadbent—the former aviation director—who also negotiated the development of the Las Vegas Monorail. It all seemed uncannily cohesive, but nothing was ever built.
Unlike his projects, Bulloch, 52, is not flashy. Bespectacled and conservative, he is a family man and an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was born and raised in Southern Nevada—his father and grandfather are from Boulder City. He was the student body president at Rancho High School in 1977 before attending Brigham Young University and returning to Las Vegas. He’s raised a family here, and he’s committed to the Valley, he says, regardless of the economic ups and downs. And that particular spot on the Strip—across from Mandalay Bay—has a grip on him. “Remember the TV show Las Vegas?” he says. “With the casino the Montecito? They superimposed it across from Mandalay Bay, on our property. Even Hollywood thought the next hotel-casino would be there.”
In the mid-2000s, as property values went sky high, he entertained several offers from investors to buy some of his Strip property—and as a man who makes his money in real estate, he was ready to sell. But the deals fell through. “We were in escrow a half a dozen times,” Bulloch says. “But it didn’t work out.” It seemed he was going to have to do it himself.
This August would have marked three years of living at the Happi Inn for Belinda Tubbs, who is nearly 60. She has short bleached hair, blue eyes and no teeth, and as she worked the front desk one night in April, she was eating a bowl of ice cream. “The last time I saw Howard Bulloch was on this TV right here,” she said, pointing to the small screen, “when he was standing at the County Commission getting approval to do this.” Then came the eviction.
“It happened so quickly,” Tubbs said. She had an easygoing manner and did not seem panicked. But she had no idea where she would live after leaving the Happi Inn. She wanted to stay in Las Vegas; California was home, but somehow she’d come to feel better suited to this transient city.
Resident and employee Bob Nirk was a bit more concerned about his housing situation. He moved into the Happi Inn in 2008 after a series of setbacks in the Pacific Northwest—a rough divorce, a couple of DUIs. It’s a place people run to—dreamers and second-chancers. Nirk has thick, prematurely white hair and deep circles under his eyes. He walked me up to see his room, which he was trying to pack up before being kicked out. The space could barely contain his belongings—the bed overflowed with clothes and tools and food. On the dresser, a tiny, dirty aquarium held one fish swimming tight circles inside.
Nirk said that Happi Inn residents first heard a rumor about the Ferris wheel in April. Soon, he noticed inspectors coming through the property. But no one was given official notice that there were plans to tear the place down, that they would have to move out.
“Where am I gonna go?” he said. “Chances are, I’ll be on the streets. I don’t have anybody. It’s like you’ve got one foot on the street and the other on a banana peel.” He pulled a tattered photo of his estranged children out of his wallet. Nirk told me he was planning to leave Las Vegas. Maybe, he said, he’ll go work on a fishing boat in Alaska. First, though, he wants to ride “that roller coaster across the street”—New York-New York’s looping Manhattan Express. “I always thought it would be fun.”
In 2009, a fabulous new attraction opened on the south Strip across from Mandalay Bay.
This time, it was the world’s largest helium balloon, to be complemented by an exotic animal park. Bulloch and Gaffin leased their property to a French company called Cloud Nine, which set up a 2-ton, 75-foot-diameter helium-filled balloon with a 25-person gondola, then tethered it to the ground and began selling rides 500 feet in the air—the same height of the planned Skyvue wheel.
From the top of the ride, while often fighting the Vegas wind, you could see Mandalay Bay, the Luxor and the rest of the Strip in the distance. You had an excellent view of the top of the Happi Inn, but mostly what you could see was the giant empty lot north of the Happi Inn and south of the MGM, which is also owned by Bulloch. It was not as scenic a view as one might have imagined, but it nevertheless drew thousands of tourists.
By early 2010, operators realized the wind was going to be more than a small challenge. The ride had to be shut down several times. On March 6, a gust of wind hit the balloon, damaging it and leaving one person with minor injuries. The balloon team got it up and running again, but on March 18, a 35 mph gust blew it down and ripped it open, releasing helium that was supposed to last seven years. No one was onboard when it happened.
At its business peak, the balloon ride employed 22 people; at the end of its brief run, there was still one woman fielding telephone calls and “dealing with insurance issues and attorneys,” according to Living-Las-Vegas.com. The employee said that the exotic animal park never came to fruition even though they’d built a temporary enclosure with swamp coolers for the animals; apparently the county didn’t approve it in time.
Cloud Nine was shut down late last year, leaving the launch lot vacant but the gift shop building and picnic tables still standing. Its website now says, “The Cloud Nine balloon ride is no longer in operation. We want to thank the thousands of customers who had the opportunity to fly with us over the skies of Las Vegas. We bid you fond farewell.”
It’s fascinating to me how the cycle of boom and bust happens so prolifically and consistently on every economic scale in Las Vegas. I suppose it happens everywhere, but it happens more ridiculously here. It’s the essence of Vegas: hoping for the boom after the bust. It’s what gamblers do; it’s what investors do; it’s what second-chancers or dreamers come here from around the world to do. It’s what Las Vegas does—again and again, with very little stability in between turns of the wheel. The talk of economic diversification or the importance of higher education or social services or the small steps of building social infrastructure always seems to fall by the wayside when a carnival ride comes along. Something shinier, newer, bigger, wilder. Las Vegas hung its hopes on CityCenter for years. The nation hung Las Vegas’ hopes on CityCenter. Most major news outlets wrote about it. They considered it our next big draw. A couple of years later, it sits as a megalithic tribute to the anticlimatic.
So many grand ideas sit half-built on the Strip right now—the Echelon, the Fontainebleau. A few years ago, bulldozers ate the iconic La Concha motel, and it took a massive act of community to save its lobby and have it moved to the Neon Boneyard. So far, nothing has been built on the Strip site where La Concha used to stand. Meanwhile, the Glass Pool Inn, with its fish-eye windows in the above-ground pool, was demolished in 2004, and nothing has been built there, either.
There’s a certain rationale to the way things work out, of course—the recession is largely to blame for today’s halted construction. And maybe the motels needed to be torn down because they’d become more liability than asset. The Happi Inn seems to have had some issues.
But in the grander scheme, this is the city’s historical one-note refrain that ignores difficult questions of longevity—stability achieved by the accumulation of small wins such as diversification, education, social infrastructure—in favor of another all-or-nothing gambit.
Yet that’s Vegas. And I have to wonder if it would still feel like Vegas if it were any less absurd, any less risky, any less exciting and tragic and foolish and brilliant.
On May 23, a fabulous new attraction was re-announced for the south Strip across from Mandalay Bay.
It was a sunny morning and the carnival barkers were back out in full force for what was called the Skyvue “site-clearing” ceremony. And indeed, a beautiful Vegas moment was about to unfold in the parking lot of the half-destroyed Happi Inn.
Crews had set up a platform stage with a mic and speakers, set out folding chairs, put up a snack table with bagels and pastries, and painted over those ugly spray-paint X’s on the vacant rooms. Journalists were invited. Various people in fine suits showed up; the parking lot filled with Mercedes and Lexuses, and some had to park down the street. A crane was perched picturesquely over the lobby, waiting to dig in. A banner hung from the building: Skyvue.
Mayor Oscar Goodman came with a showgirl on his arm. Commissioners Susan Brager and Mary Beth Scow were prepared to speak. And beside the stage, a curious enormous item was covered in a black cloth, like a magician’s rabbit that will appear from nowhere and moments later disappear just as easily. It was at least 15 feet wide, and kind of flat, and perched on a stand that held it to face the crowd.
Inside the tiny Happi Inn office, a transformation had taken place. Where two weeks ago Belinda Tubbs was watching TV behind the counter, hard hats hung on the wall. The books were gone. The no-more-cash-loans sign, gone. Two new desks were set up. This would serve as the project’s construction site office.
After a bit of upbeat jazz was piped through the speakers to set the tone in the parking lot, PR man Denny Weddle took the stage to introduce Howard Bulloch’s new-ish idea: the observation wheel.
Weddle remarked on the sour economy and said, “A world-class attraction at this time? Wow. Let’s give them a little applause for stepping up.” The crowd clapped. Weddle noted that May is a good month in Vegas history, recalling the May 20 release of the Elvis movie Viva Las Vegas in 1964. Then he said, “This is the start of something big!”
Commissioners Brager and Scow, whom Bulloch described as old friends, each said a few words. Brager said, “I know our community looks forward to some great successes from Howard Bulloch and the whole team he’s put together.” And Scow said, “A project like this will spur new excitement and new growth in our community.” The mayor proclaimed: “This is going to be one of the great attractions of Las Vegas.”
Bulloch took the stage and followed suit. “We are indeed excited to bring this super observation wheel to Las Vegas,” he said. Then he rolled out the success story of the London Eye for optimistic comparison: The Eye has attracted 3 million riders a year since 2000 and is the most popular paid tourist attraction in London.
Plus, Skyvue will have more than just the wheel, he said. It will have 200,000 square feet of retail space, an entertainment venue and 107,000 square feet of LED signage. The project will fill 11 acres.
Then it was time to pull the black cloth off of the mystery item.
“We are also revealing to the world our commitment to do this project,” Bulloch said. “We have acquired, and we have to reveal to you here today, the bearings for our superwheel. These are the most critical part of an observation wheel. They take 18 months to manufacture. These were built in Germany and prepared for the Great Wheel in China [which was begun in 2007 but never completed]. We just had them delivered last week to Las Vegas, so we are ready to commence construction and do the Las Vegas sky wheel!” People applauded and looked at the black cloth expectantly.
Weddle counted down: Three ... Two ... One! Workers pulled the cloth; it got snagged; they pulled again. And there sat a 23,000-pound steel bearing, looking like a giant tire rim.
The crowd dispersed. A few minutes later, a reporter asked Bulloch, “So you’re using the bearing of a wheel that never got built as evidence this one will get built?” Bulloch brushed this question aside. Others were easier: “Just tell us how exciting this is to finally be starting.”
Bulloch shared the numbers behind the wheel: It will provide 200 jobs during construction and 200 in retail after the complex opens in 2012. About 15 percent of the retail space has commitments. The project will cost $175 million, but the financing is not yet secure.
“Right now we have plenty of equity to get the project going, because we have much more than that [$175 million] in land equity,” he said. “We’re not concerned with the financing … we’ll get it for this exciting project. ... There have been very few [wheels] proposed where they have the land. We own the land. We’ve been here for 10 years owning the land, and we have 38.5 acres. Our initial phase is only 3.5 acres. … We have 800 feet of frontage right here.”
I asked him if this is the continuation of World Port from 2001, the proposed resort for this very spot that never got built.
“What happened to World Port?”
“World Port was a project planned 10 years ago with some other partners, and it was going to be a complex of different properties. This is a stand-alone development with an observation wheel, which have proven to be very successful. We own all the land we need for the development.”
In 2012, the grand opening of a fabulous new attraction may occur here, on the south Strip across from Mandalay Bay.
Bulloch is proceeding enthusiastically, working frantically to get retailers to commit to the site—and to his vision. “We’ve done research, and what people want is a return on entertainment,” he says. “They can lose $100 gambling in two minutes. Or they can take that same $100 to a nice restaurant here and have a beautiful meal. Or they can ride our observation wheel and see a great view of the Strip. People are shopping and eating, and our visitor volume is up, but not our gaming. We think we’ll fit right into that niche—a low-cost ticket to get a view of the Strip.”
I hope it works. What Vegas needs is economic life, and if that comes in the form of an observation wheel from longtime land dealer Howard Bulloch through chutzpah and carnival rides, so be it. If tourists come to hop aboard the third-largest wheel in the world, take a glimpse toward the Strip or an empty lot, perhaps eat a meal and then blow a lot of money on the retail shops below, we all win.
That is surely why the County Commission gave its unanimous OK. That’s why the mayor came out to support it. We need a win. We’re willing to take a risk here, maybe even try something a little desperate. It’s hard to be cynical about the dreamer-developers of our city even if they’ve failed to deliver in the past, even if they’ve been the subject of scuttlebutt.
We have a way of forgetting failures here, of erasing the losses, and coming back to the table again and again and again, sure we’ll win this time. It’s Vegas.
“I’m 100 percent in on Las Vegas,” Bulloch says. “All of my chips are on the table.”
Belinda Tubbs found a place at a weekly motel in central Vegas, and rented a car with cash from a no-name company to take her clothes over to her new home.
Bob Nirk ended up staying in Vegas. The day after he got fired, he got a job with Alpine Steel. The company will be working on the Skyvue project. Alpine Steel is owned by someone named Randy Bulloch.
In some ways it seems like the wheel has already been turning here a long, long time.
Brian Sodoma contributed additional reporting for this story.