In Las Vegas, MGM Grand casino to retire its lions

Las vegas lions
The MGM Grand lions were once as prized on the Las Vegas Strip as a visit from Paris Hilton -– sightings of either one provided tourists with an only-in-Vegas moment. The few dozen lions were probably as pampered as the wealthy socialite, and they arguably worked more frequently.

The lions lived on an 8.5-acre ranch named The Cat House -- not to be confused with Cathouse, a nightclub at the Luxor hotel  -- where they snacked on horse leg bones and steaks and were trained as cubs to tolerate their own version of paparazzi. Some were said to be descendants of Leo, the original Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion.

At least once a week since 1999, the lions were loaded into transport cages and driven to the Strip, where their golden manes were shampooed and blow-dried before their star turn. They spent hours in a $9-million, 5,000-square-foot glass habitat, so enamored with the attention that it was sometimes hard to get them to leave.

The animals even had a trust fund of sorts, a 2008 Times story said. MGM Grand managed a 401(k) for them, which would pay for food and trainers if their owner, Keith Evans, no longer could. A few years ago, the account held $1.6 million.

But time passes and tastes change. Like Hilton, the lions have fallen out of favor in Las Vegas (though it had nothing to do with cocaine possession and anemic TV ratings).

The lion habitat will permanently close Jan. 31, the Las Vegas Sun reported Wednesday. A spokeswoman for MGM Resorts International, which owns the hotel, said the closure is part of “significant changes” planned for the massive property, which has a giant lion statue on Las Vegas Boulevard.

MGM Resorts, along with other major casino companies, remains financially bruised from the recession, though in recent months tourism here has somewhat steadied. “The lion is the hotel’s logo,” owner Evans told the Sun, “but times change I guess, and we’re a free show.”

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--Ashley Powers in Las Vegas
Twitter.com/ashleypowers

Photo: Tourists catch a big cat resting in the soundproof lion habitat at the MGM Grand hotel-casino. Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times


Vegas tour helicopter climbed, turned before crashing, NTSB says

The National Transportation Safety Board released its initial report on the recent helicopter crash outside Las Vegas that killed five people
Federal investigators are looking into why a sightseeing helicopter flying toward Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas suddenly climbed and turned before slamming into a narrow ravine, killing the pilot and four passengers.

In the final minute before last week's crash, the tour helicopter shot up 600 feet, turned left, dropped 800 feet and turned left again, radar records indicate. It then plummeted into a ravine and burst into flames, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released Tuesday. 

The brief summary of evidence, which draws no conclusions as to the crash's cause, is a prelude to a final report that could take up to a year to complete.

The day before the crash, federal investigators have said, the Eurocopter AS350 had its engine and mechanical control devices replaced as part of routine maintenance. On Dec. 7, the helicopter, operated by tour company Sundance Helicopters, departed from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and flew a route to Hoover Dam that all tour operators use.

"Up to the last minute, it was all standard tour operating procedure," NTSB board member Mark Rosekind told reporters last week. "At the last minute, things changed. Why? We don't know."

Killed in the crash were the pilot, Landon Nield, 31, and two visiting couples. Lovish Bhanot, 28, and Anupama Bhola, 26, of India were on their honeymoon. Delwin and Tamara Chapman of Kansas, both 49, were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

Sundance was involved in another fatal crash in 2003, when one of its helicopters hit a canyon wall near the Grand Canyon, killing the pilot and six passengers.

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--Ashley Powers in Las Vegas
Twitter.com/ashleypowers

Photo: A Las Vegas police helicopter carries investigators to the site of a deadly helicopter crash near Hoover Dam. Credit: Steve Marcus / Las Vegas Sun / Reuters


Vegas crash victims include 2 couples celebrating their marriages

Las Vegas sightseeing helicopter crash

As much as Las Vegas has promoted itself as Sin City, it’s also considered a top destination for couples celebrating their commitment.

So it might come as little surprise that last week two couples in town to mark their nuptials boarded a helicopter for a sunset tour of the Las Vegas Strip and the Hoover Dam. One couple had been married for a month, the other for 25 years.

What should have been a routine sightseeing trip ended in a fiery crash. The Eurocopter AS-350, operated by Sundance Helicopters, suddenly climbed, made a sharp turn and plummeted into an isolated ravine outside Lake Mead, killing both couples and the pilot.

Federal investigators have not said what caused the crash, though they did tell reporters that as part of routine maintenance the helicopter’s engines and mechanical control devices had been replaced the day before. Sundance Helicopters has been involved in at least one other fatal accident.

Over the weekend, authorities identified one couple as Lovish Bhanot and Anupama Bhola of Gurgaon, India, the Associated Press reported. They were married Nov. 6 and were spending their honeymoon in Las Vegas. Bhanot, 28, ran a real estate company, and Bhola, 26, worked as a flight attendant.

They were joined by Delwin and Tamara Chapman of Utica, Kan. The Chapmans, both 49, were in town to renew their vows after a quarter-century of marriage, the AP said. Delwin Chapman ran a construction company and his wife had just closed her salon. The couple had four daughters.

The canyon in which the helicopter was found was so remote that authorities could access it only by helicopter and all-terrain vehicles. The pilot, Landon Nield, 31, had worked for Sundance for several years. He and his wife, Gabriela, were married in June.

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-- Ashley Powers in Las Vegas

Twitter.com/ashleypowers

Photo: In this Dec. 10 photo provided by the National Transportation Safety Board, investigators examine the wreckage of a sightseeing tour helicopter from Las Vegas that crashed Dec. 7 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada near the Hoover Dam. The crash killed the pilot and four tourists. Credit: NTSB


State with fewest natives is ... not Florida or Arizona

Las vegas economy

What are the odds that your Vegas card dealer was born in Nevada?

Not very high.

Nevada has the smallest percentage of native-born residents in the nation, the Las Vegas Sun reported, with about 24%. Next was Florida, with 35%, and Arizona, with 38%, according to the report, based on U.S. Census Bureau data. All three states were the beneficiaries of the pre-recession stampede to sunny states.

Last decade, Nevada's population grew about 35%, to 2.7 million residents, with the vast majority living in the Las Vegas region. Transplants from other states accounted for more than half of Nevada's growth, the Sun said, whereas another 17% relocated from another country.

In fact, the concept of the Vegas native has become so exotic that a local alternative weekly, Vegas Seven, runs a column called "Ask a Native." Sample exchange:

Q: With no disrespect meant toward these professions, I don’t want my child to be a cocktail waitress or a go-go dancer or a valet attendant or a bartender. Should I move?

A: Yes, you should move. But only as a penalty for asking such a question.

Many of the newcomers were lured by cheap housing and jobs in construction and tourism, which promised a middle-class lifestyle even for people who lacked college degrees -- the so-called Vegas dream.  Then the housing bubble popped and the recession took hold. Nevada has led the nation in joblessness since summer 2010, when it dethroned Michigan.

With so much economic woe, should Nevada expect a population exodus?

Not yet, demographers told the Sun.

Right now, few regions are doing well economically, so the possibility of jumping to another job is limited. Also, many Nevada homeowners are “underwater,” meaning they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth and can’t easily move.

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-- Ashley Powers in Las Vegas

Twitter.com/ashleypowers

Photo: Construction on the Echelon in Las Vegas shut down in 2008, with the company citing "economic conditions" and the credit freeze. With the economy so rotten in Nevada, will the new residents it gained in the last decade leave? Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times



Occupy Las Vegas is unusually cooperative, i.e. tourist-friendly

Occupy las vegas
If Las Vegas has a credo, it might be this: Do. Not. Upset. The. Tourists.

How else to explain the congeniality of Occupy Las Vegas?

The Occupy Wall Street movement here is as friendly as the front desk staff at a Strip hotel, as the Associated Press reported, despite Nevadans having lots of reasons for rage. The Silver State leads the nation in unemployment, foreclosures and underwater mortgages. Although its tourism industry is gaining some strength, the recession decimated its other economic pillar, construction.

Protesters here lease an empty lot from the county and abide by a contract requiring clean toilets and banning littering. They submit plans for demonstrations to police and once canceled a protest on Las Vegas Boulevard because officials said it would be a particularly busy weekend.

"We don't want to chase tourists away from our city because that's where a lot of people's jobs come from," David Peter, a union worker active in Occupy Las Vegas, told the AP.

By contrast, Occupy groups in Oakland, Seattle and Portland, Ore., have clashed with city officials over their camps. This week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the tent city in Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the Occupy movement, shut down.

In Las Vegas, Occupy members told the AP they could accomplish more with less aggressive tactics. For example, they are holding a series of workshops aimed at helping struggling homeowners.

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--Ashley Powers in Las Vegas

Twitter.com/ashleypowers

Photo: Bob Joyce relaxes outside his tent at the Occupy Las Vegas camp site just a mile from the Las Vegas Strip. Credit: Julie Jacobson / Associated Press


U.S. might have to wait for Formula One; Texas project is idled

The fate of the 2012 United States Grand Prix appears to be in limbo.

A $300-million effort to bring international Formula One auto racing to the Texas capital of Austin was placed on hold this week amid disputes about financing the project.

Investors in the Circuit of the Americas project told the Austin American-Statesman on Tuesday that they were suspending construction of a new 3.4-mile racetrack southeast of Austin, idling about 300 workers. Work on the track had slowed in recent months, but sped up in recent days, according to the Statesman.

The project was supposed to mark the return of Formula One to the U.S. after a five-year absence. The last Formula One race on a U.S. track was in Indianapolis in 2007. Before that, Phoenix hosted three Grand Prix races from 1989 to 1991, and Watkins Glen in upstate New York hosted from 1961 to 1980.

But circuit investors, including San Antonio billionaire Red McCombs and local businessman Bobby Epstein, told the Statesman this week that construction stopped because they were still waiting for the rights for the Formula One race from promoter Tavo Hellmund, a former driver and longtime associate of Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone.

When asked last week about the progress of the Austin project, Ecclestone told the Associated Press: "There are two parties. One is building a track, the other has the contract, and they've forgotten to talk to each other."

Epstein posted a statement on the investors group's website Tuesday and told the Statesman, "I don't know why Formula One would want to kill this race. The money is in place; the project is on time. All COTA needs is for Formula One to convey the original contracts that were in place for a long time."

"Construction has to resume in the very near future," he added.

The track was designed to accommodate 120,000 fans and a three-day weekend of racing might attract as many as 300,000 people, organizers project. That could bring as much as $288 million a year to Austin. The projected revenue had led state officials to approve an annual subsidy of $25 million for 10 years from the state's Major Events Trust Fund. By law, that payment could be made in coming days.

However, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs announced Tuesday that the incentive payments would not start until after the first Formula One race, scheduled for Nov. 18, 2012.

She cited "recently publicized disagreements between the race right holders and the circuit developers," slowdowns at the construction site and a potentially competiting Formula One race recently awarded to New Jersey as cause for concern.

Developers have maintained that they were on target with construction. Paving of the track on the 1,100-acre property was scheduled to begin next year, and permits from Travis County were obtained two weeks ago for the construction of five buildings, including the main grandstand, according to the Statesman.

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-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston

Video: Construction was underway in August on a Formula One track in Austin, Texas, but was on hold this week, investors announced, with state incentive payments in limbo. Credit: Autovoce


Christo's Colorado 'Over the River' project wins federal approval

Christo colorado

There are many ways to measure the massiveness of “Over the River,” the project that artist Christo is championing for Colorado's Arkansas River Valley.

Amount of fabric: 5.9 miles.

Cost: Up to $50 million.

Size of environmental impact statement: 1,686 pages.

Or you could take note of the frenzy the project has stirred up.

Christo has proposed suspending silvery fabric in segments over 42 miles of the Arkansas River. If approved, the installation will take about two years to build and open for two weeks in the summer of 2014. Proponents said it would draw as many as 400,000 visitors to the picturesque region, some of them before the opening, the Denver Post reported.

But the proposal split the state’s environmental activists, some of whom balked at the possibilities of heavy traffic and harm to local Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, Colorado’s state animal. Christo, who once set up 1,760 giant yellow umbrellas in California's Tejon Pass, is no stranger to the tumult that public art sometimes stirs. Last year, when asked about the "Over the River" controversy, Christo told The Times: “By discussing the work of art they become part of the work of art. They make it more important.”

This week, federal environmental regulators signed off on “Over the River,” which now awaits approval from two counties and state transportation officials, the Post said. "This is the first time in history that a work of art had an environmental impact statement — an enormous feat,” a jubilant Christo told the paper.

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-- Ashley Powers in Las Vegas
Twitter.com/ashleypowers

Image: A drawing of a section of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado that artist Christo would drape with material.


Vegas performers can battle Venetian hotel in court, judge says

Las vegas performers
Score one for the Las Vegas Strip’s ersatz Chewbaccas and Michael Jacksons.

In recent years, Las Vegas Boulevard has grown packed with costumed characters who pose for photos and tips. Some are refugees from Hollywood, where a police crackdown resulted in the arrests of an Elmo, a Freddy Krueger and a Mr. Incredible, among others.

Their arrival in Las Vegas inspired financially strapped locals to take a similar approach for (relatively) easy cash. (You can read a Times story about the Vegas street performers here.)

Photos: Costumed characters on the Strip

Casinos and law enforcement agencies have repeatedly clashed with the Strip buskers, some of whom hassle tourists and one another. Last year, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of two brothers, Jason Perez-Morciglio, who dresses as Zorro, and Sebastian Perez-Morciglio, who dresses as Darth Vader. 

Zorro was detained one day by Venetian hotel-casino security guards, who claimed he’d sold a tourist a sword outside the hotel, according to a summary of findings by U.S. District Judge Philip M. Pro. Zorro said he hadn’t, and refused to leave what he said was a public sidewalk.

His brother, who was not wearing his Darth Vader costume, approached and asked what Zorro had done wrong. Both men were handcuffed, taken into the hotel and searched by hotel security. Police arrived and gave them trespassing warnings.

Attorneys for the Venetian and Las Vegas police had asked that the lawsuit be thrown out, but as Vegas Inc. reported, Pro last week allowed the brothers to continue pursuing the suit. They claim that Venetian security staff used excessive force and that police were inadequately trained to protect the performers’ 1st Amendment rights.

The brothers have history on their side.

A few years back, after the ACLU filed suit on behalf of street preachers who worked on the Strip, county officials changed an ordinance that prevented them from brandishing signs larger than their bodies. The signs had been anathema to Vegas marketers, with messages such as "The sin and the sinner go straight to hell together."

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-- Ashley Powers in Las Vegas
Twitter.com/ashleypowers 

Photo: Kotton Kandy, a.k.a. Dwayne Dukes, 47, performs for tourists on the Strip. Dukes lost his job selling time shares in Las Vegas and has been posing for pictures for money. Credit: Genaro Molina /  Los Angeles Times


Chicago museum wins America's Best Restroom contest

  Field Museum bathroom.

Was it the domed ceilings evoking calming blue skies, the drip-resistant hot-air hand dryers, or the teeny, tiny toilets for tots that put the Field Museum's public restrooms on top? Actually, it was all those things and more, judges said Thursday as they named the Chicago attraction's ground-floor toilets the best in the country.

The restrooms beat out nine other finalists in the 10th annual America's Best Restroom competition, a creation of the Cincinnati-based Cintas Corp., which makes restroom supplies. Each finalist had its special features, including the king of portable toilets: a "regal restroom trailer" that was outfitted to service President Obama and his entourage during the 2009 inauguration. Others offered Italian-style frescoes, toilets with seat-warmers, outdoor showers and lavish artwork.

But what set the Field Museum's men's and women's restrooms apart were their family-oriented features, which range from a nursing room and sofa for mothers; a nanny caddy filled with diapers, wipes and other supplies; and of course those tiny toilets. Judges also noted that the restrooms are cleaned every hour, the better to serve the museum's 3,500 daily visitors.

Finalists were announced in August, and voters went online to select the winner.

The museum, whose current exhibits include one on chocolate and another on Tyrannosaurus rex, is now vaulted into the America's Best Restroom Hall of Fame, alongside such luminaries as the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., and Jungle Jim's International Market in Fairfield, Ohio.

The Field Museum's vice president of finance, Jim Croft, said in a statement that the museum was honored by the award.

"Host to over 1.3 million visitors each year, the museum strives to give visitors the best service and exhibitions; we also feel this about the amenities and we are pleased to offer our guests these unique restrooms," Croft said.

Cintas' senior marketing manager, John Engel, said judges scrutinized the competing restrooms' hygiene, style, public accessibility and usability.

The contest sends the message that "hygiene matters -- for good health and good business," said Engel, noting that "tens of thousands" of people went online to choose each year's big winner. Read more about past contests in this Los Angeles Times story on the event.

Second place went to the Renaissance Arlington Capital View Hotel in Virginia, cited for its creative use of color. When you turn on the hot water, it flows red. When you turn on the cold water, it flows blue.

-- Tina Susman

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Photo: Eco-friendly automated faucets are featured in the sink at Chicago's Field Museum. Credit: Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune


Las Vegas slogan 'What happens here...' will join ad walk of fame

What happens in vegas 
If you want to make Las Vegas residents roll their eyes, remind them that “what happens here, stays here.” It will only be the millionth time they've heard it.

The wildly successful marketing slogan is one of two that online voters chose this year to join the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. The other: Capital One’s “What's in your wallet?" (If you’ve been to Vegas recently, not much.)

The ad campaign, which launched in 2003 and branded the Strip as an adult fantasyland, was the result of moms-gone-wild Vegas stories collected from focus groups and a national contest, the Las Vegas Sun reported.  “We got some toe-curling stuff,” Rob Dondero of R&R Partners, the firm that created the campaign, told the paper.

Copywriters rejected “If you go, you’ll know” and “Get in on the secret” before settling on “What happens here, stays here,” the paper said, which eventually morphed into "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." Though tourism officials were initially wary of the campaign -- it featured no specific resorts, a huge departure for Strip marketing -- the cheeky ad barrage is widely credited with helping Las Vegas shake off the post-Sept. 11 doldrums.

Amid a recession that has devastated the Strip, tourism officials tried to shift slogans. But “Your Vegas is showing” and “Vegas right now” didn’t have the same oomph. “What happens here” returned.

The slogan has become so ubiquitous that one of its creators, Jeff Candido, told Las Vegas Weekly that his 4-year-old has a T-shirt that says, “What Happens in Preschool, Stays in Preschool.”

So locals probably are stuck with it for a little while longer. 

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 --Ashley Powers in Las Vegas

Twitter.com/ashleypowers

Photo: Tourists line up outside the Bellagio In Las Vegas to watch the water show. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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