In the history of Las Vegas, Kirk Kerkorian’s name will be mentioned alongside Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes and Steve Wynn as key visionaries who helped shape the nation’s gambling mecca and tourist attraction.
With his passing Monday at the age of 98, Kerkorian was hailed by Las Vegas business leaders and gaming experts as a “gutsy” entrepreneur who became an instrumental force behind the transformation of the Las Vegas Strip.
“In an industry that thrives on innovation, Kirk Kerkorian was a pioneer who set a higher standard for gaming and elevated Las Vegas’ stature with each move he made,” said Geoff Freeman, chief executive of the American Gaming Assn.
Kerkorian, an eighth-grade dropout who became one of the richest men in Los Angeles, envisioned the future of Las Vegas on his first visits immediately after World War II, when it was an isolated desert town with only one luxury hotel, mobster Siegel’s Flamingo.
He eventually acquired several of its biggest and most elegant properties, including the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand.
“He literally built the world’s largest resorts three different times,” said Bo J. Bernhard, executive director of the UNLV International Gaming Institute. “The foundation of the enormous adult Disneyland is very much a Kerkorian invention.”
Because of his impact, he was among the first to be inducted in the American Gaming Assn.’s Gaming Hall of Fame.
Kristin McMillan, chief executive of the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, said Kerkorian’s “gutsy business leadership shaped Las Vegas and set the course for our city to flourish in tourism, gaming and hospitality.”
He opened the International (now the Westgate Las Vegas) in 1969 and built the first MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 1973, the world’s largest resort hotel at the time. Years later, he built another MGM Grand in Las Vegas, then also the world’s largest.