It’s been a summer of huge openings for Las Vegas. From Resorts World Las Vegas to Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, the strip has been alight with celebration after celebration marking the completion of massive projects and ushering in of new possibilities. But on the North end of Las Vegas Boulevard, a specter looms over the festivities; a silent titan brooding over its long and failure-ridden history, not so patiently awaiting its own day. And that day may finally be arriving. The massive abandoned property once lovingly named the Fontainebleau and now under the advisory of Marriott brands has been given an opening date—again. Will it stick this time? CELEB takes a look at the history of the property and the chances that, this time, the mammoth resort will finally open.
The property in question was once home to a small hotel known as the El Rancho and nearby Algiers. Turnberry Associates—under the helm of Donald Soffer and son Jeff—purchased the parcel and demolished the hotels with plans to build a city of London-themed resort, complete with a massive Tower of London/Big Ben. Then 9/11 hit, literally, and tourism suffered. Turnberry Associates began focusing their Las Vegas resources on building two condominium towers nearby known now as Turnberry Towers. Across the country in Miami, the Turnberry had purchased an older hotel known as the Fontainebleau, and they were renovating it as a residence/resort. The iconic old Miami hotel gave Turnberry an idea, and the project in Las Vegas was renamed The Fontainebleau—the first step in what they hoped would become a brand they could grow.
In 2005, plans were announced to break ground in 2006 on the Fontainebleau in Las Vegas, with intent to open by 2008. But then the Great Recession hit. In order to open the Fontainebleau, Turnberry Associates had leveraged an extraordinary amount from banks (including Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, and others)—around $3 billion. But the recession was a terrible time to have massive loans. Due to the recession, one of the retail loans evaporated, leaving the future of the project in question. One bank soon pulled hundreds of millions in funding. Back-and-forth lawsuits ensued, and the end result was that the Fontainebleau declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, with more than $2 billion in debt. At this point, the resort was 70 percent complete; a massive, gleaming, glass-sided half-moon structure which loomed over the North end of Las Vegas Boulevard.
Hurry Up and Wait
At this point, a judge ordered the property sold ASAP. Executives from Wynn and Penn toured the property, but ultimately the purchase went to mogul Carl Icahn—for an estimated $150 million. Icahn suggested he intended to finish the property, which would require another $1.5 billion. But Icahn was clearly not actually interested in finishing the resort, as evidenced by the fact that he sold off the warehouses full of interior furnishings that had been intended to fill the completed property.
Icahn later sold the property in late 2017 for $600 million. The new owners—businesses New Valley and Witkoff—developed plans for the property. They gave it a new name, The Drew, after Witkoff Group founder Steve Witkoff’s son who died of an overdose in 2011. The new plans for the hotel were ambitious, updated for the kind of customers the resort would serve in 2020 instead of the early ’00’s when it was originally imagined. The Drew would contain upper floors of The Edition hotel and JW Marriott, and was slated to open in 2022.
But of course, disaster struck again —this time, in the form of a global pandemic in 2020.
JW Marriott and Opening Day
Once again, the once-Fontainebleau’s opening day was in jeopardy. With construction halted—again—it seemed that the property would never open. At this point, the exterior design is approaching nearly two decades out of date, and people are wondering if it will even pull enough money to make the years of headaches worth it.
But one man believes it is—Jeff Soffer, who repurchased the property under Fontainebleau Development in February 2021. Soffer, whose father’s company started the project all the way back in the early ’00’s. JW Marriott announced that it would stay on with the new owners—and the hotel’s new name was announced to be the JW Marriott Las Vegas. A new opening date was given: October 2023.
But what’s going to be different this time? The increasingly aging property has almost seemed cursed. So what can Soffer do to make this time different? Well, for one, his partners in the purchase make this iteration of the property more likely to succeed. Soffer’s partners are none other than Koch Industries, business empire of the famed Koch brothers. Instead of cobbling together loans from banks that may or may not share his vision, having Koch behind the project is a near-assurance that it will reach completion.
Questions remain, of course, about the viability of a nearly two-decades old property that hasn’t exactly engendered goodwill from the locals. But whether or not the property ultimately succeeds once open, it at least has its best chance in a decade to actually open. So the Fontainebleau Las Vegas—now the JW Marriott—is coming in October 2023. Probably.