LAS VEGAS - This city was one of the hardest hit by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Millions of Americans, too scared to fly, stayed home. For a town where the majority of visitors arrive by plane, the effect was devastating: Conventions were canceled. Hotels and casinos were half-empty. And a city that had spent most of the previous decade enjoying a reputation as a perpetual boomtown saw construction come to a standstill, as projects were put on hold or delayed indefinitely.

But just like the casino owners who know the odds are always in their favor, many developers were betting on a comeback. It appears they were right: One year later, Las Vegas has largely recovered. Tourism officials report hotel occupancy and convention bookings have returned to near-normal levels.

Several suspended construction projects have also been resurrected, including the $235 million new Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Originally slated to open in summer 2002, parent company Mandalay Resort Group halted work on the three-story, 1.8 million sq. ft. structure after the terrorist attacks caused a large drop in visitors to Las Vegas. However, the city recovered quicker than many expected and work resumed in March. The convention center is now scheduled to open in January.

The facility is being built on 16.5 acres next to the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino's existing 190,000-sq.ft. conference center. It will be the largest convention center on the Las Vegas Strip and one of the five largest convention centers in the world, eclipsing the nearby 1.2 million sq. ft. Sands Expo and Convention Center. Plans call for the facility to include a 10,000-sq. ft. business service center, four ballrooms ranging in size from 31,000- to 100,000-sq. ft. and three separate tractor-trailer loading docks on two levels that can accommodate up to 36 rigs simultaneously.

'A monster job'

Installing the hvac system that will keep occupants insulated from the often-stifling desert heat is Hansen Mechanical Contractors Inc. The Las Vegas-based company is working under the direction of JBA Consulting Engineers to install 67 York air handler units and 140 fan coils, which will provide a total cooling capacity of 8,800 tons. The hvac system will also use four Marley dual cooling towers, four Trane dual chillers and a 5,250 hp. chilled water pump.

"It's just a monster job," says Terry Johnson, Hansen's supervisor for the project. "It's the biggest job I've ever been on."

It's also a fairly fast one: When the project was announced in April 2001, construction was scheduled to begin the following June and take about a year. But after work on the suspended project resumed last March, contractors were told to have the center ready in time for its first trade show in January 2003.

That put Hansen's sheet metal shop into high gear: workers are fabricating the fittings for almost 1.7 million pounds of oval, spiral, square and round ductwork the convention center will use.

But tight timetable or not, company officials say they're not too worried.

"We're pretty efficient in here," says Steve Hartzke, Hansen shop superintendent.

Casino projects are also nothing new for a large company such as Hansen. The company has around 200 sheet metal workers, all members of Local 88 of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association. Hansen's plumbing division employees are represented by United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 525. The company is also a member of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors National Association.

"We've worked on every major hotel in town," Haetzke says. "We've done them all." Among the higher-profile projects: Bellagio, New York-New York, Treasure Island and the Mandalay Bay Resort.

Always a challenge

Not wanting to sound too boastful, company officials point out that every job has unique challenges besides the ever-tighter construction schedules. For the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, materials handling proved to be one of the biggest headaches, according to Johnson.

"There was not much of a staging area," he says. "We were having a hard time with the semi-trucks."

Materials problems aside, Johnson expects Hansen to be done with its work by the end of November. "Things are looking really good now," he says.

The convention center is part of the Mandalay Resort Group's bid to become a major player in the city's trade show business. Conventions brought more than 4 million people - and their company charge cards - to Las Vegas last year, spending a combined $4.8 billion on non-gambling activities. However, despite its upscale trappings, experts said Mandalay Bay (and its sister property, the Luxor) was at a disadvantage.

Lacking large convention facilities on site and located at the south end of the Strip, the resorts were too far away from the Las Vegas and Sands convention centers to attract large numbers of trade show guests, many experts said. Convention attendees are highly sought after because they typically pay room rates far above what many hotels charge midweek tourists and spend twice as much during their stay.

Company officials have said they would like to see up to 40% of business at the Luxor and Mandalay Bay come from conventions and trade shows. Currently, only 21% of registered guests are attending such events. But Mandalay Bay Resort Group President Glenn Schaeffer is optimistic hat will change once the center opens next year.

"By elevating our own level of play, we will be able to offer our services to an even larger base of clients, including industry trade shows and the national and international associations that require the exhibit space this new facility will offer," Schaeffer said.

Seven trade shows are currently booked for the Mandalay Bay Convention Center during 2003.