Rich Vegas, Poor Vegas

Article excerpt

Byline: Tony Dokoupil and Ramin Setoodeh

Sin City has no jobs, and the newly homeless are living in drainage pipes. But it also has its biggest act since Elvis.

As another desert afternoon fades to night, an unusual throng is building at Las Vegas's Caesars Palace, vibrating the plaster columns of the porte-cochere. There are white-haired executives flanked by publicity personnel; camera-toting tourists jostling with hundreds of off-duty hotel employees; and, naturally, a man dressed as Caesar himself, complete with a phalanx of rent-a-centurions decked in bronze and red feathers. At last, a black Escalade draws up, and Celine Dion, the shimmering French-Canadian headliner, steps onto a rose-strewn red carpet. "Welcome home, Celine!" the hoi polloi yell, as the overture from Ben-Hur erupts from hidden speakers.

"It doesn't feel like I've left," Celine says, recalling her recent neon-lit Vegas homecoming.

But the view from the red carpet can be deceptive. For in the three years since she departed Caesars Palace, Vegas collapsed. Sky-high foreclosures and epic layoffs torched the working-class dreams of the men and women who create the illusion that is Celine's Las Vegas: the cocktail waitresses in their Romanesque miniskirts, the towel boys who work the Bacchus pools, the cooks at Neros Steakhouse. The megaresorts along the Strip recently posted an unprecedented two-year loss--with a total bleed north of $6 billion--and the usual gap between the city's glamour and grit is now wider than at any point in Las Vegas history. Official unemployment is near 14 percent, the nation's worst rate among big cities, and when you factor in those who have lost hours or dropped out of the labor force altogether, actual joblessness is a Libya-like 26 percent, according to Stephen Brown, the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Could things actually look worse?" Brown asked during a speech to business leaders this winter. "The answer is no."

All of which helps explain why Celine has been cast as a savior as much as a star. "Prepare for the Second Coming" implored a column in the Las Vegas Sun, dividing the city's recent history into B.C. and A.C. (for exactly the reason you think). It's the "Dawn of a New Day," promised a more sober piece in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, riffing on the title of Dion's last Vegas show, A New Day. "Can a Singular 'Celine' Revive Las Vegas?" queried USA Today, before engaging the president of Caesars Palace on why, exactly, the answer is yes.

Certainly Celine has been good for Caesars, and Caesars has been good for Celine--paying her a reported $100 million for 210 shows over the next three years. During her prior run, from 2003 to 2007, Dion sold out more than 700 consecutive performances, smashing local records for total audience (nearly 3 million), and bringing in more than $400 million at the box office, more greenbacks than the Rat Pack, Liberace, and Elvis combined. This time around, she's being touted as a one-woman stimulus bill--worth at least $114 million a year and thousands of jobs, according to UNLV. But in an $18 billion-dollar economy--one so sluggish it was recently ranked among the five worst in the world--can Celine's return really have an impact? "We are not adjusting our forecast," says Michael Lawton, a senior analyst for Nevada's Gaming Control Board, who notes that the Celine effect is basically just replacing the Cher effect from a season ago.

Of course, to presume that a single performer--even one of Dion's stature--could help Vegas get rich quick is a sucker's bet. But then, that's what Vegas has always been about.

A crowd of 4,200 fans has packed into the Colosseum at Caesars Palace to get a first look at Celine's new show. As she takes the stage in her sparkling ivory Armani Prive gown, the audience leaps to its feet. Several fans sob uncontrollably, and the singer fights tears of her own. …