Israel’s odd couple take on Vegas

Storming Vegas: Nochi Dankner and Yitzhak Tshuva.The Jews created Las Vegas; now the Israelis are hoping to improve upon it. While the Mafia lent discreet support to the creation of the State of Israel – at least to hear Frank …

Storming Vegas: Nochi Dankner and Yitzhak Tshuva.The Jews created Las Vegas; now the Israelis are hoping to improve upon it. While the Mafia lent discreet support to the creation of the State of Israel – at least to hear Frank Sinatra tell it – Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and the rest of those who got casino gambling going in Vegas might be a bit surprised to see Israelis looking for a piece of the action.

Israelites have built towers in the desert before, but this one will be really special: If partners Yitzhak Tshuva and Nochi Dankner and their Elad IDB Las Vegas company have their way, come 2011 their Plaza Las Vegas will stand high on the Strip, the largest Israeli real-estate venture ever undertaken, and the second largest private real-estate development in the world, according to Plaza officials.

When the two mega-developers’ estimated $8 billion project is completed, it will feature a state-of-the-art casino that will trump anything Trump’s ever done: 16,340 square meters of casino space, making it the largest on the Strip.

But in an era where casino income is no longer the main source of cash for Vegas developers, the pair aren’t hedging their bets: Reports of submitted plans indicate there will also be seven towers rising to a height of 200 meters, featuring 4,100 hotel rooms and 2,600 resort condominium units; 12,495 sq.m. of restaurant space – currently the hottest source of major income in town, according to Vegas insiders – 32,320 sq.m. of shops, a 4,640 sq.m. health club, huge convention center and a movie theater on the site where the two ceremoniously imploded the Frontier Hotel and Casino last November. That’s a lot of brick and mortar.

Tshuva is reportedly a firm believer in providence pointing the way, and while promoting gambling may not exactly be what he has in mind, company officials are convinced the opportunity that awaits them in the desert is no mirage. “We are excited to bring the Plaza to Las Vegas,” Tshuva says. “The new project will exude the same elegance and grandeur that the Plaza in New York is known for. We look forward to becoming part of the Las Vegas skyline and will bring high-quality service and excellence that is expected with the Plaza brand.”

The project is not only a move west, however, but a springboard to a whole company dimension. “The Plaza in Las Vegas is not only our expansion of the hospitality brand, but also our first step into the gaming industry,” explained Miki Naftali, CEO of Elad Group, Tshuva’s commercial real-estate and development firm based in New York, in an interview with Hotels Magazine.

With that in mind, the project’s directors hired Danny Wade, former vice chairman of the board of MGM Mirage, as chief operating officer, essentially to run its gaming business. With Wade’s help, the Vegas operation hopefully will lead to deals in other gambling meccas, specifically Macau, where Naftali said Elad is investigating opportunities as well. Another luxury hotel/condo project in Singapore is in the works, and Naftali said the firm is also seeking deals in other US and international cities.

Tshuva himself certainly won’t miss the opening, despite the fact the 59-year-old head of Elad never wears a watch – a reminder, he said in a profile on Ynet, of how his parents couldn’t afford to buy him one for his bar mitzva.

Israel’s third richest man in 2006, according to a Forbes magazine survey, still has clear memories of growing up in a transit camp outside Netanya, 11 in a room with no food in the refrigerator when the family moved to Israel from Libya a half year after the self-confessed strong patriot was born in 1948. So it was all the more satisfying for him to put Israel on the New York real-estate map when he bought the Plaza Hotel in 2004 for $675m., giving Israeli passersby cause to wonder just what an Israeli flag is doing flying outside the hotel.

Tshuva’s firm belief in family has carried over to his own firm. To renovate the Plaza he picked his daughter, architect Gal Nauer, who is expected to also be asked to work her magic in Vegas. Son Elad is also a leading figure in the firm, as indicated by it being named after him. While Nauer still hasn’t been officially named to head up the Vegas project, local sources say “it stands to reason she will be involved.”

The two partners in the company couldn’t have taken different paths to the top. Dankner, 54, was born into a business family and took IDB – Israel’s largest holding company with large stakes in Cellcom and Bank Hapoalim – to new horizons. He’s the personification of the new Israeli businessman: worldly, educated, charismatic.

Tshuva, the self-made master builder and number 214 on the list of the world’s billionaires, had to quit school at 12 to help support his family. He started his career working for the Defense Ministry in Tel Hashomer, then was involved in building the Bar-Lev line in Sinai. In 1998, he took his place in the local business firmament by buying a stake in the Delek company, of which he eventually took control. He later moved into the petrochemical field as well before going global, especially in real estate.

Now this Israeli big business “Odd Couple” is out to dazzle Vegas.

Their idea seems a pretty solid one. With the desert city booming, attracting increasing numbers of visitors as it tries a more family-oriented appeal, the Plaza Las Vegas stands to make the two men and their respective companies a pile of chips.

According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and other statistics, there were some 39.2 million visitors to Sin City in 2006, with $10.9 billion in gaming revenue for Clark County and $6.28b. on the Las Vegas Strip itself. Land value itself is spiraling, with reports the Israelis paid as much as $35m. per acre for the prime turf they bought on the north side of the Strip.

With all that in their favor, Vegas analysts agree the two Israelis’ chances to make a killing are good, and veteran Vegas developers are already gearing up for a tough turf battle.

In the meantime, while Dankner and Tshuva wait for the first roll of the dice and posh purchasers for their luxury condos, it appears they won’t be alone. Lev Leviev’s Africa-Israel has already announced plans to build a huge casino/resort center in town, leaving those watching from back home to wonder just how much further the race by Israeli developers to the promised land of the Nevada desert will go.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

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