When Kansas-based real estate investor Phil Ruffin paid $165 million for 41 acres on the famed Las Vegas Strip in 1998, his critics said he overpaid by $15 million.
Soon, Ruffin will be laughing all the way to the bank.
In August, he is scheduled to close a $1.24 billion sale of 34.5 acres of that Strip property, which is home to the New Frontier hotel and casino, to Elad Group, owner of Manhattan's Plaza Hotel.
I did good. That's the deal of a lifetime, said Ruffin, who with partner Donald Trump is planning a second condo tower on the remaining acreage.
Ruffin joins a pack of investors profiting from soaring real estate values in the U.S. gambling haven, where prime Strip property prices have roughly doubled in the last three years. Recent deals have landed anywhere from $10 million per acre to Ruffin's $36 million per acre.
Billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian is also showing a gain -- to the tune of $3 billion -- without even closing a deal.
His Tracinda Corp., which owns 56 percent of MGM Mirage Inc., in May offered to cherry-pick the company's luxury hotel, casino and entertainment center Bellagio, as well as its massive, $7.4 billion CityCenter project now under construction on the Strip.
Tracinda also said it would consider other options that effectively put the entire company in play.
Kerkorian voided the offer on Wednesday after MGM announced a new Strip project with Atlantis developer Kerzner International Holdings Ltd. MGM will contribute land at a value of $20 million per acre for the project, which Tracinda expects will unlock untapped shareholder value.
Even though MGM shares fell on the news, they remain 28 percent higher as a result of 90-year-old Kerkorian's gamut, increasing the value of his MGM holdings by $2.8 billion to $12.8 billion.
MADONNA OF REAL ESTATE
No stranger to reinvention, Las Vegas as a destination has charted a path as varied as the career of pop star Madonna -- going from pitching itself as a sinful getaway, and then as a family-friendly vacation spot, and back again.
For roughly two decades starting in the 1940s, Vegas was the realm of mobsters, Rat Pack crooners and topless showgirls.
Billionaire Howard Hughes led a corporate boom in the 1960s and gambling became the more legitimate-sounding gaming. Then resorts raced to cater for families with Circus Circus's indoor theme park and the Statosphere's 1,000-feet-up thrill rides.
The city has since sought to return to its roots with its What Happens Here, Stays Here, ad campaign.
Sin City's latest makeover is all about luxury and variety. Casinos and other businesses are targeting high rollers and ever-more-affluent visitors from around the globe with new casinos, cutting-edge cuisine, exclusive shops, top-end spas, big-name entertainers and luxury hotels and condos.
New York-based Elad, the New Frontier's soon-to-be owner, plans to begin construction next year on a $5 billion complex that will bear the Plaza name, across the street from Steve Wynn's gleaming casino resort that set a new standard for luxury when it opened in 2005.
Since the 1950s, experts of all stripes have cautioned that the appetite for more hotels and casinos would soon be sated. Meanwhile, the Strip has grown steadily denser and glitzier.
A handful of factors are driving the latest land boom, said Carlton Geer, executive vice president of CB Richard Ellis' Global Gaming Group.
First and foremost is the old rule of supply and demand.
There is a scarcity of land on the Strip, Geer said.
Nonetheless, while gaming has always been a profitable business, casino company shares once traded for less than what the value of their real estate holdings would justify.
Before, investors were looking more at the business and cash flow of the company and didn't really value raw land, Geer said.
That perceived undervaluation has caught the attention of cash-rich investors.
In what could be one of the biggest private equity buyouts this year, Apollo Management LP and Texas Pacific Group are working out a deal to buy Harrah's Entertainment Inc., the world's largest casino operator, for $27.8 billion, including the assumption of $10.7 billion in debt.
Just last week, Fortress Investment Group LLC and other investors struck a deal to buy Penn National Gaming Inc. for $6.1 billion.
Harrah's shares, as well as those of Boyd Gaming Corp. and Wynn, are each up roughly 30 percent since Apollo and Texas Pacific's first bid for Harrah's on October 2.