Above Marvin Lipschultz’s desk hangs a reminder of what the 3.5 acres of land below him could have been.
It’s an artist’s rendering of an aqua blue 41-story hotel called One Trop. Lipschultz looks at it daily from his small guest room office at the long-shuttered Golden Palm Hotel.
One Trop was supposed to replace the Golden Palm along West Tropicana Avenue near Wild Wild West Gambling Hall. Lipschultz saw the resort as his chance to compete with the big boys on the Strip and finally forget about the renderings of other failed projects stacked in his office corner.
That was before the recession.
Now, after a half-decade of waiting for a second chance to strike, the grizzled real estate mogul is ready to try again, albeit on a much smaller scale. Lipschultz plans to reopen the Golden Palm as a restaurant and karaoke bar, although a date has not been set.
“We’re lookin’ for a real punch,” Lipschultz said. “Something people will really love.”
Built in 1980, the 150-room property began as a Travelodge but soon morphed into a Howard Johnson.
Lipschultz didn’t get involved until two decades later. He bought the hotel in 1999 after making a fortune in other ventures, paying $6.5 million for the franchise and $3.7 million for the land.
As a young man, Lipschultz earned a degree in accounting from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and headed to Chicago, where he opened a successful meatpacking plant. The company soon became one of the leading distributors of meat to Japan.
Lipschultz bought a Rolls Royce and a large home next to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion.
That’s where he had his first bright — and lucrative — idea. Lipschultz converted his home into a cluster of condominiums and sold the units for $100,000 each. Today, the condos sell for about $1.5 million apiece.
With even more cash in his pocket, Lipschultz moved his family out West and bought a massive house in San Diego. It wasn’t what he expected.
“It was a little bit boring for me down there,” Lipschultz said. “It was a little quiet.”
So he hopped in his car and headed to Hollywood, looking for a new project.
He soon met a group of filmmakers with a solid script for a horror flick titled “Terror on Alcatraz.” The filmmakers were broke and couldn’t get any major studio to bite, so Lipschultz said he’d front the cash on one condition: He wanted to be involved in the movie.
The director named Lipschultz co-director and cast him as a policeman.
Lipschultz rented out Alcatraz Island, where the crew filmed the movie, starring Aldo Ray.
The film didn’t smash any box office records, but Lipschultz was able to parlay his new connections into several trips to the Oscars. He attended the ceremony five times in the late '80s. He now keeps pictures of himself standing next to the giant Oscar statue pinned to a corkboard in his office. Lipschultz likes to surround himself with mementos of his greatest achievements.
“That’s one of the highlights of my career,” he said, pointing to a movie poster hanging on the wall.
By the late 1980s, after producing a “rockumentary,” Lipschultz saw a new opportunity in Las Vegas real estate. He built more than 850 houses in the valley, which sold as fast as he could build them.
In 1999, he shifted his interest to the hotel business. That’s when he bought the Howard Johnson and changed its name to the Golden Palm.
“When you’re an entrepreneur, you do anything that comes along the way that looks good,” Lipschultz said. “It’s a business challenge. Business is my talent.”
By the early 2000s, Lipschultz felt business was booming — more and more visitors poured into the city — and he wanted to expand. He hoped to knock down the decades-old Golden Palm and build a $115 million Miami Beach art deco-themed casino-hotel complex called South Beach. He planned to offer some rooms to nightly guests but sell two thirds of the building to timeshare residents.
Lipschultz also had a gaming license and wanted to expand the casino by installing 738 slot and video poker machines, 10 table games and a 10-seat sports book.
Lipschultz described the battle as “David versus Goliath.” David won. The state granted Lipschultz a license to build.
But the economy turned on him. It was the first setback in a long line of disappointments to come.
Construction costs spiked before crews could break ground on South Beach. Lipschultz wasn’t willing to take on debt, so he began searching for partners.
In November 2005, he joined with restaurateur Charlie Palmer to develop the property into a large boutique hotel.
Four months later, financing dried up. Lipschultz sued Palmer, alleging breach of contract. The case went to the Supreme Court, where Palmer, who could not be reached for comment, and Lipschultz settled.
The crumbled deal forced Lipschultz to surrender his gaming license and shut down the property’s slot machines.
That same year — in 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble — appraisers valued the Golden Palm land at $46.6 million, or about $15 million an acre.
But Lipschultz wasn’t finished with the property. After seven years of trying and failing to redevelop the Golden Palm, he decided to knock it down and pursue a new project. This time it was the 100,000-square-foot One Trop.
He never got the chance.
Though Lipschultz secured commitments from several financiers, construction costs for the project jumped to almost $300 million, he said. He couldn’t take on the risk. Lipschultz decided to sell the property and the licenses he had acquired to build One Trop.
He listed the Golden Palm for sale and sought a record price: more than $46 million. Many bids came in, but Lipschultz said none of them were high enough.
It remained on the market just long enough to usher in the economic crash.
“It was a depression here,” Lipschultz said. “It was a recession everywhere else. … It was really hard in terms of keeping everything together.”
On a recent afternoon, Lipschultz leaned over his desk, fingered through a stack of papers and pulled out a computer-printed map of the Strip. It is covered with red Xs, each marking a resort or casino bankrupted by the crumbled economy. While waiting for the city to recover, Lipschultz documented the collapse of businesses around him.
“Every one of these red Xs went broke,” he says, pointing to several sites on the map. “I’m one of the few independent guys who didn’t go bankrupt.”
The Golden Palm eventually was transferred to a family trust. The resort remained closed.
Lipschultz still dreamed of resurrecting it and tried to keep busy waiting for a chance to reopen it. He became involved with a film in production at Sony Entertainment, although he declined to reveal the details. He also served as executive producer for several Strip shows, including "iCandy Burlesque: the Show," a dance act at Planet Hollywood’s Saxe Theater.
Now, he’s busy getting ready for the debut of the new Golden Palm, although he hasn’t decided when exactly that will take place.
Signs on Interstate 15 past the Tropicana advertise, “Hotel Casino Coming Soon.” Lipschultz already has stocked the bar and ordered food for the resort’s former IHOP restaurant.
He still has staff to hire. Until now, he has worked with a two-man crew: himself and his son Jason.
While he’s confident the restaurant and bar will open soon, Lipschultz doesn’t know whether he’ll ever restart the hotel. That will depend on the success of his current ventures.
“We just need a couple really good ideas,” Lipschultz said. “But I feel good that something’s gonna happen.”