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July 31, 2014

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Stupak proud, but not notably nostalgic about Stratosphere

Bob Stupak doesn't visit the Stratosphere Tower much anymore.

The man who parlayed the dream of building a spectacular tourist attraction and using it to corral visitors into a casino has been a familiar personality at the quirky intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Main Street -- a location far north of the main Las Vegas Strip, but too far south to be connected to downtown.

In 1974 it was the home to Bob Stupak's World Famous Million-Dollar Historic Gambling Museum and Casino. Then, it became Vegas World, a marvelously tacky outer space-themed casino with a display of some of the cash Stupak won in some of his most notorious gambling exploits -- poker games and big Super Bowl bets.

For awhile, the next incarnation of the site, the Stratosphere hotel-casino, was glued to Stupak just like the other casinos. The night of the grand opening five years ago this week was described as "Stupakular" by some of the guests.

Media from all over the world focused on the hotel and its 1,149-foot tower. On the day the Stratosphere opened, a film crew followed Stupak from the moment he got out of bed to well after the last of the fireworks were launched from the tower that night.

There was a bronze statue of Stupak at the hotel and everybody knew about the man they called "the Polish maverick."

Stupak, like Jack Dawson, the protagonist of "Titanic," was on top of the world.

But, like Jack Dawson, Stupak was seemingly aboard the Titanic.

When Stupak was having trouble financing the completion of the project in the early '90s, Grand Casinos Inc. of Minnesota took on a 42 percent ownership role of the property and helped complete construction. But even Grand's help couldn't solve the growing financial woes.

Dave Ehlers, a gaming analyst with Las Vegas Investment Advisors, said massive debt and not having enough facilities to keep visitors on the property spelled trouble for the Stratosphere from the beginning.

"They had their cornerstone facility in the tower and they did that right," said Ehlers, who frequently toured the building as it slowly began to dominate the skyline. "There are terrific views from up there and everybody wanted to see them.

"But they didn't do a couple of other things right," he said. "They had all that debt in there and they ran into cash-flow problems."

Less than three months after the hotel-casino opened, Stupak, then a 14 percent owner, resigned as chairman and left things to Grand Casinos Chairman Lyle Berman. At the time, Berman said "bankruptcy is not in our vocabulary" and vowed to turn the failing property around.

Bankruptcy

"Bankruptcy" became a part of Berman's vocabulary the following January, opening the door for the current owner, Carl Icahn, to take control.

In the time between Stupak's resignation and the Stratosphere bankruptcy filing, the bronze statue disappeared. Eventually Stupak himself all but disappeared from the property.

Stupak made one more run at regaining control of the hotel-casino in the summer of 1997, producing a half-hour video attacking the company's remaining board members. At the time he was also considering developing his own bankruptcy plan to compete with Grand Casinos and Icahn.

The video was scheduled to be aired on local television but it never ran.

"Now, they (the Stratosphere) have a journeyman veteran in there whose name is a household word," Ehlers said. "I think Icahn knows what he's doing."

Stupak, no stranger to the headlines, was in the news a year before the Stratosphere's opening when he nearly died in a traffic accident.

On March 31, 1995, Stupak and his son, Nevada, were nearly killed when the Harley-Davidson motorcycle he was driving collided with a vehicle that had turned into his path. Stupak was comatose for 12 days.

Today Stupak looks at that accident as a line of demarcation: Before the crash, the tower was a source of controversy in the community; after it, the tower was looked upon as a source of community pride.

"I look at that accident as an interruption," he said in a recent interview at the Las Vegas Country Club. "As a whole, everything is fine and it's great to be alive.

"But I'll tell you, after that accident, all the complaining stopped. There were people who didn't like the tower, this and that, but after the accident, it was like nobody had anything negative to say about it."

Asked if the tower has become the skyline icon he envisioned when he sought to build it, he laughed and said, "An icon? Sure, it's become an icon. It's become a Carl Icahn.

"You'll never be lost in Las Vegas as long as you can see the tower," he said. "You'll always know where you are because you can see it from almost everywhere."

Disappointment

The biggest disappointment Stupak said he had in building the tower was that he was not allowed to extend it to the 1,800-foot level he originally envisioned.

Stupak said while he is credited with being the force behind getting the tower built, it was the Las Vegas City Council that fought all the bureaucratic battles for approving its construction. Mayor Jan Jones and Councilmen Bob Nolen, Arnie Adamsen and Scott Higginson cast votes in favor of starting the project in 1991, city records show.

"There were all sorts of people out there opposed to it," Stupak said. "McCarran (International Airport), the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and Nellis (Air Force Base) all thought building this tower was somehow going to shut them down. If it wasn't for the courage of the council, it would have never been built.

"Do you remember that line from 'The Godfather, Part II,' when the guy was talking about setting up a casino in Cuba and he could do it because he was dealing with a 'a very friendly government?' That's what I felt like. I was dealing with a very friendly government."

The friendly City of Las Vegas government may finally get the return on its political investment this year when new rooms being completed in the Icahn regime come on line. City spokesman Erik Papa said the new rooms will boost the Stratosphere into megaresort status with more than 2,000 rooms -- a first for what city officials consider the downtown area.

Although the tower may be his most visible accomplishment, Stupak said he has gotten far more satisfaction out of other things in life. Stupak says his children -- son Nevada and daughters Summer and Nicole -- are far more significant to him.

They have no particular affection for the resort, Stupak said, and like him, they don't have any particular need to go there. Stupak says he'll occasionally go for a meal at the Top of the World restaurant, but nothing more.

Pride

Stupak said he was much prouder of opening his own place for the first time in 1974.

"It was Bob Stupak's World Famous Million-Dollar Historic Gambling Museum and Casino," he said. "Be sure to get all that down, because that's the way it appeared on the application."

And he also has fond memories of opening Vegas World in July 1979.

"There was a band playing 'When the Saints Go Marching In,' and the place wasn't even done yet, there were (workers) on ladders all over the casino when the doors opened and the people came in," he said. "We had a 6 o'clock opening and (former Mayor) Ron Lurie cut the ribbon and we had the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders there. I was up for two days straight without any sleep, I was so full of adrenaline."

Those opening days, he said, are etched in his memory because they were so actively chronicled.

The coverage of the opening of the Stratosphere started with the closure of Vegas World. Stupak said the media attention was virtually nonstop.

"On the day of the opening, we had media from 47 different countries," he said. "And seven of those countries, I had never heard of."

Stupak said the reality of the place opening never occurred to him until a ceremonial rolling of the dice occurred.

"I remember there were people out on St. Louis and Sahara all wanting to get in," he said. "They waited up to get in the door. And when it was all over, I went out to a restaurant, had breakfast and went home and went to bed."

Stupak said he was embarrassed by the bronze statue of him, never authorized it and was glad when it disappeared.

"They spent $100,000 more for that statue than I spent to open my first place in 1974. That's a true story," he said.

And, as for Grand Casinos and its operation of the Stratosphere, Stupak chooses his words carefully.

"They just weren't up to it," he said. "I think I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying they were like a high school baseball team coming out to play the Yankees."

Stupak won't talk about his most recent business ventures. But he's getting new ideas of how to be in the public eye -- by avoiding it.

Admiration

He watches other business executives with admiration. One is Kirk Kerkorian, who owns a controlling interest of MGM MIRAGE.

"Look at the way he's referred to: He's always called 'MGM's largest shareholder.' They don't even use his name, but you know who it is. MGM's largest shareholder isn't in the media much, he can go out without getting recognized, he drives his own car, he goes for walks in his neighborhood," he said.

"That's something I think I'd like, so when I decide to announce something about my business, I'll call a little press conference and not say what it's about and you know what? People will come to it.

"One good thing about being known is that people at least will return your phone calls."

But don't worry. Bob Stupak has no intention of completely leaving the spotlight behind.

He said he talked his way into a walk-on part for the remake of "Oceans Eleven," which filmed in Las Vegas.

"Unless it ends up on the cutting-room floor, I'll be up there."

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