In this era of pink slips, the prospect of a new four-star hotel, retail, entertainment and residential complex in Las Vegas hiring thousands seems like a mirage in the desert. Yet, the MGM Mirage (NYSE: MGM) CityCenter complex is seeking more than 12,000 permanent employees, in addition to over 8,000 others working at the peak of construction.

The entire development project, a joint venture with a subsidiary of Dubai World, is billed by MGM as "the largest privately financed development in U.S. history." Recently, however, MGM delayed until late 2010 the launch of one of the four hotels, the Harmon (400 rooms), and scrapped entirely that property's condos -- but only because of construction issues, the company insists. Clark County has required the project's engineer of record to develop a plan to assure the soundness of inspections done by Converse Consultants, the special inspection firm that fell short in detecting the mistakes at the Harmon.

On February 11, Fitch Ratings downgraded MGM's issuer default and outstanding debt ratings, partly as a result of concerns about its ability to finance CityCenter. On February 3, Moody's Investors Service downgraded MGM's rating and analyst Anil Daswani of Citi Investment Research posted a Sell rating on its stock, observing that although 55% of the condos are sold, only 20% of the deposits are in hand. (The stock is now trading just above $5, down from a high above $96 in October 2007.) Tony Dennis, executive vice president of CityCenter's residential division, said via email: "Our buyers have the met their obligations of depositing 20% of the purchase price of their unit; the balance is due upon closing, which will begin at the end of the year."

MGM Mirage recently announced its plans to sell its Treasure Island hotel, also in Las Vegas, but the company says that the terms of the transaction enable workers there to retain their jobs.

Vacant jobs at CityCenter range from accountant for the casino to wig-and-makeup technician for the project's Cirque du Soleil. CityCenter's vice president of human resources, Michael Peltyn, who serves as the ringmaster for the massive hiring project, might find his task somewhat eased, given the estimated unemployment rate in Nevada: 9.1% for the state and the Las Vegas-Paradise metro area, as of December 2008, per the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

The pressure is on to have the ARIA Resort & Casino (4,000 hotel rooms and suites) opened by mid-December -- with the Mandarin Oriental (400 rooms, 227 residences), the Crystals shopping, dining and entertainment center, and the residential Veer Towers (about 335 condos) to be launched by year's end. The boutique Vdara Hotel (1,500 rooms) comes online even earlier, in October.

MGM Mirage faces the challenge of adding accommodations as tourism in Las Vegas slides. For the first 11 months of 2008, the number of visitors to Las Vegas declined 3.8% compared to the same period the previous year. (The estimate for all of 2008 is a decline of 4.5%, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.) Citywide, overall hotel occupancy dropped 3.9% for the same 11-month period compared to 2007; plus the average daily room rate plummeted 9.5% and convention attendance fell 5% compared to the prior year.

Yet, from Peltyn's vantage point, CityCenter's pull is strong -- for job seekers. As of February 9, MGM had received 71,000 applications, with an additional 15,000 sent in from existing staff. "In this economy, the applicant pool is pretty robust," he says."We're getting a good 2[,000] or 3,000 a day," he says, projecting a total of 100,000 by the end of the process. "We have exciting career tracks in hotel operations, food and beverage, finance, entertainment, retail, security, engineering, human resources."

The company anticipates filling 50% of the CityCenter positions with existing MGM staff. "We want to have a critical mass of employees that been have been part of the MGM culture," Peltyn says, adding that the company will "back-fill positions" and replace those who've transferred from other MGM properties. Current employees have had the chance to apply since December 1, while external applicants were invited to send resumes after January 5, via citycentercareers.com. All told, some 44 Web pages list positions ranging from bartender to barber, crepe maker to carpenter, fountain worker to executive chef, head rigger to horticulture manager, linen attendant to lifeguard, slot floor technician to sommelier, and Title 31 compliance specialist to tailor.

Considering the numbers involved, the hiring process is proceeding in an orderly fashion. After applying online, external job seekers for the more-than-10,000 positions at ARIA or the over-1,000 posts at Vdara self-select an appointment for a 15-minute review of their application so staff can verify it's complete. For Nevada applicants, this takes place in person. Otherwise the review is by phone. The daily tally of late: 600 application reviews face-to-face and 300 by phone. Appointments are rapidly filling for February. Interviews of existing employees will start this month; non-MGM-ers begin interviewing in April.

Tom Savin, of Henderson, Nevada, who's been out of work for a couple months, applied for a financial analyst position at CityCenter's Crystals retail district. In his late 50s, Savin has experience working for a wide range of employers (management firms, Fortune 200 companies and outfits with just under $100 million in sales); he just moved to the Las Vegas area about three and a half years ago because that's where he envisions eventually retiring. Even though CityCenter has 12,000 jobs, applicants can only apply for one job at a time -- at the complex and within all of MGM Mirage, he observes. "There's an awful lot of people out there looking for very few jobs," he says. "It's a very tough market."

Claiming that CityCenter "represents the single biggest hiring opportunity in the history of Las Vegas," Peltyn says, "We've been flattered by the response." A veteran of the 1998 launch of Bellagio, Peltyn says luring employees was harder then. In contrast, today, MGM's is "the only project going on in Las Vegas." Thus far, Peltyn says, southern Nevada is the source of most of the applicants, with a "nice volume from California and Arizona" and inquiries from Chicago and New York. International applicants hail from Singapore (for culinary posts), Thailand and Canada. Those in managerial or highly specialized roles might be offered relocation benefits.

MGM Mirage has launched an extensive media campaign via billboards, magazines, newspapers, the internet and radio to advertise these jobs, in what Peltyn calls a quest for "quantity, quality and diversity." Says Pelton: "We look for . . . a passion for providing quality customer service to our guests -- someone who smiles with their eyes." He's also tapped MySpace and Facebook to entice Gen Y job seekers. The official hiring portal lets job seekers send friends an ecard indicating "I just applied at CityCenter" to encourage others to do the same.

Peltyn has engaged close to 70 human resources personnel in the hunt, including "opening extras, greeters, career advisers," he says. Plus, the 29,000-square-foot employment facility is designed to "excite the applicants," with a video wall, an architectural model, colorful posters and fun facts for would-be hoteliers to learn about the project.

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