Jewelry Center Grows in Vegas

Plans are under way to turn a parcel of land in downtown Las Vegas into a 5.4-acre international marketplace dedicated to the jewelry industry.

Called the World Jewelry Center, the 1 million–square–foot project is being planned as a mixed-use facility that will include an office tower, retail space, and residential condos. The plans, including architectural renderings, were unveiled at a gala event inside a white tent on the dusty property—part of a 61-acre site called Union Park, which once served as a Union Pacific railroad station. The gathering included local government officials; members of Probity Intl. Corp., the company developing the project; representatives of Altoon + Porter Architects, the architectural firm designing the complex; and officials representing the 11 jewelry trade companies and organizations that have signed letters of intent to occupy the center.

The biggest surprise of the evening was the announcement that the American Gem Society had signed—only a few hours earlier—a letter of intent to occupy the building. Ruth Batson, AGS executive director and chief executive officer, told JCK that if the project is successful, AGS would strongly consider relocating its headquarters, already in Las Vegas, to the WJC.

Construction of the center is planned for 2007, and completion is anticipated in late 2009 or early 2010.

Bill Boyajian, the former president of the Gemological Institute of America, who was brought on as WJC managing director in August, said the event was a way to create buzz for this ambitious project.

“We want to share our vision with the jewelry industry and the local community and let them know what we’re doing,” he told JCK. “We want to generate some excitement and interest.”

The vision, he said, is to create “a one-stop shop for the gem and jewelry trade.” He explained that the complex will bring together jewelry businesses from around the world who are interested in doing business in the United States and, in particular, the western United States. WJC will serve as an international trade destination for the industry and a retail destination for consumers.

The office tower will be home to jewelry manufacturers and trade organizations. The companies that occupy the tower will own their space. “We are creating an opportunity to buy a piece of the rock,” Boyajian said.

One feature expected to attract the international jewelry trade to the center is its likely designation as a foreign trade zone, which allows foreign companies to postpone paying a duty on products shipped to the United States until they’re sold. The designation hasn’t been granted yet, but it has strong political support and everyone involved with the project is confident it will happen.

The tower was designed for 57 stories, but that could change. The top floors will house luxury residential units.

A three-story retail complex adjacent to the tower will include a gem and jewelry museum to attract tourists. Boyajian said the retail units, as planned, will sell jewelry from around the world. The retail complex could also let WJC manufacturers test the market for new products.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman attended the event and pledged his full support. “It is a way of diversifying the economy of the city,” he said. “It is an industry that is rich. And the wealth is coming to downtown Las Vegas.”

WJC participants say Las Vegas is attractive because of its low taxes, low cost of doing business, 40 million annual visitors, and the high number of people moving to southern Nevada to take advantage of the booming economy. Plus, the international jewelry industry is already familiar with Las Vegas because of The JCK Show.

Boyajian says the project needs 400 to 600 companies to buy in and 25 percent to 50 percent committed occupancy to get financing. But he’s optimistic that the WJC will reach its goal.

“The first big challenge is get people on board,” he said. “The more people you get on board, the easier it will be to sell this to the rest of the world. Once they see the train leaving the depot, they will want to get on board.”