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Mogul has golden touch, and very deep pockets

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / December 3, 2011
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In the late 1980s, Steve Wynn became known as the savior of Las Vegas, a brash personality and bold thinker who reinvigorated a stale casino industry by building a shimmering temple of entertainment that set a new standard of opulence for the business.

The resort he built then, The Mirage, and others over three decades, feature man-made mountains, artificial lakes, museums with priceless art, geyser fountains, a Ferrari and Maserati dealership, and just about every luxury clothing brand imaginable. In Macau, off the China mainland, he owns two casinos that raked in about $2.8 billion in the first nine months of the year, and is now preparing to build a third one there.

“Nobody can compete with his level of glamour,’’ said William Thompson, a University of Nevada Las Vegas professor who has followed Wynn’s career. “He comes into a community and builds something where people will say, ‘Wow, look at that.’ His mission is to add value, and then of course to make a billion on the side.’’

Now Wynn is preparing to audition his vision in Massachusetts, as he negotiates a deal with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to build a casino opposite Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

Though details are few, gambling industry specialists said to expect nothing different for Massachusetts. It may not be 50 stories, like the Encore at Wynn Las Vegas, or feature a smoke-billowing mechanical dragon, such as at Wynn Macau, but it will be big, luxurious, and bold.

“Steve Wynn by reputation has trouble not spending money,’’ said William Eadington, an economics professor and director of the University of Nevada Reno’s gambling research center. He said Wynn is known as the “Walt Disney of the gaming industry’’ for building spectacular imaginary worlds that offer a buffet of entertainment options.

He does everything on a grand scale, with architectural details and other flourishes that are so over the top, they wouldlikely not fly in any industry other than casinos. “He’s been very creative, almost to the point of being an artiste,’’ said Eadington.

Wynn could not be reached for comment yesterday and a spokesman for his company declined to discuss plans for Massachusetts. However, Wynn is scheduled to watch the Patriots home game tomorrow with Kraft, and then meet with local media on Monday.

The spokesman, Michael Weaver, said Kraft and Wynn have been friends for some time, and that Wynn is looking forward to getting local feedback about a casino.

“It’s an informal opportunity for him to meet the community and some of the officials and hear about their interest in the sort of . . . five-star resort experience that people are accustomed to with Wynn,’’ Weaver said.

Wynn is known for his big personality and a mouth to match. He has a penchant for veering off on tangents about American politics. During a recent conference call to discuss his company’s earnings, Wynn went on a diatribe about President Obama’s economic policies.

“I’m saying it bluntly, that this administration is the greatest wet blanket to business, and progress and job creation in my lifetime,’’ Wynn said.

The son of a compulsive gambler, Wynn, now 69, grew up in upstate New York and studied English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He bypassed Yale Law School to go into the family business in 1963, running a bingo parlor in Maryland previously owned by his father. He landed in Las Vegas in 1967, eventually buying a narrow strip of land from Howard Hughes that he ultimately sold, at double the price, to Caesars Palace.

His big moment was in 1989 with the development of The Mirage, the first new casino in Las Vegas in 15 years. The Mirage immediately challenged Caesars for the top gambling venue in the city, offering a volcano, a soaring atrium and the white tiger act of Siegfried & Roy.

It cost $630 million to build, a staggering sum at the time, and many industry analysts predicted it would be a white elephant. Instead, it proved so successful that it set the standard for the next wave of outrageous casinos.

“The Mirage was a big step forward in terms of being a luxury casino,’’ said Thompson, the UNLV professor. “Wynn is really the person that brought us out of the doldrums of the ’80s.’’

Wynn followed the Mirage with Treasure Island and the Bellagio. In the late ’90s, the company began to struggle, due to budget overruns with construction of the Bellagio and the ill-advised Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss. Wynn then survived a bruising battle with MGM Grand, which bought his company, then known as Mirage Resorts, for $21 a share.

He went on to build Wynn Las Vegas and Encore at Wynn Las Vegas. He also operates two casinos in Macau, the world’s largest gambling market, and is promising that his third one there will be a “breakaway’’ facility unlike anything else in the world.

His big spending habits extend to his pursuit of modern paintings and other fine arts, with Wynn paying spectacular prices for Picassos and other recognized masters that he then sprinkles around his resorts.

While he often backs up big talk with successful developments, Wynn’s outspoken manner sometimes works against him when he has to compete against others for a government-issued license, such as in the process to be used in Massachusetts.

“Steve Wynn has never been very successful in a bidding environment, partly because his ego is so large, it gets in the way,’’ Eadington said. “He’s impatient with bureaucracy, with people who tell him what to do. Everybody always waits for him to implode.’’

In Pennsylvania, one of the most recent states to legalize casinos, Wynn turned heads with comments he made about the different ethnic groups he hoped to court for an ultimately abandoned effort to open a casino there. He noted that his casino site was a short drive from “my old friends, Italians and Jews, and every conceivable stripe of ethnic group that love to shoot crap and gamble.’’

Despite any setbacks, Wynn’s casinos are among the most successful in the world. His business ended 2010 with $1.25 billion in cash, and his resorts are recognized worldwide for their stunning luxury amenities.

Gambling specialists in Massachusetts said his entry into the casino bidding battle instantly changes the landscape in Greater Boston, where many put Suffolk Downs as the favorite to get a license.

“He’s a major player, and people making the bids know the Boston license is going to be the most lucrative,’’ said the Rev. Richard McGowan, a Boston College professor who studies the gambling industry. “Him teaming up with Kraft certainly makes for an interesting sidelight.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.

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