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With the hours ticking away before the demise of the Key Largo Casino, Tom Rich hung out Monday afternoon at the bar area of small East Flamingo Road property. He was swapping stories with fellow patrons and bartender Pilar Durate, who has been mixing drinks at the South Beach-themed gaming hall for the last seven years.
"This is not really a casino," said Rich, a 16-year Las Vegas resident. "It's more of a place to hang out, meet your friends, get a drink, and watch a game or a NASCAR race. Places like Palace Station strive to reach this kind of feeling with their customers, but they never will. They're just too big. This is what a neighborhood casino should be like."
With about 250 gaming machines and a few live gaming tables, the Key Largo couldn't meet the value of its roughly 5-acre parcel across from the Hughes Center and near Paradise Road. Ownership received permission in November from Clark County to tear down the casino and adjoining 300-room Quality Inn to construct a 196-foot-tall high-rise condominium and hotel project of more than 1,000 units.
The Key Largo will shut down officially at 11 p.m. today but much of the property is all but empty already. The remaining hotel guests will check out this morning.
Leroy's Horse and Sports place removed its sportsbook equipment last week, and both the package liquor store and the cappuccino shop were closing Monday.
"It's sad because I'll really miss the people," Durate said, adding that management informed employees five months ago about the property's impending closure. "You get to know your customers by name and recognize a lot of the faces. It's too bad that it's shutting down."
Patty Guevara, who has been a cocktail waitress at the Key Largo for six years, has little interest in moving on to a large Strip resort. She said the larger places aren't as personable.
"We have a real nice local clientele and friendly out-of-town guests, and I'll miss them," Guevara said.
Both employees said ownership "took care of the workers" with severance pay and letting them know in advance of the Key Largo's future. It was up to employees if they wanted to leave or remain until the end.
Calls to an official who Key Largo employees said represented the property's ownership went unreturned Monday.
The Key Largo underwent a $7 million renovation in 1997 to give the property its Miami-enhanced theme. Before that restoration, the property had been known as the Quality Inn Hotel.
Originally opened in 1973 as the Ambassador, the property was renamed La Mirage Casino in the 1980s. But when Steve Wynn's then-Golden Nugget Inc. opened The Mirage on the Strip in 1989, the company spent $750,000 to purchase the name "Mirage" from the small casino and another downtown motel.
Also visiting the Key Largo Monday was Ted Finneran, who said he was the property's first general manager. Now retired, he has spent much of the past few years in Laughlin. Finneran, 79, said East Flamingo Road wasn't much of a thoroughfare when the Key Largo was known as the Ambassador.
It wasn't surprising, he said, to find out the small property was being taken down for a much larger high rise.
"I hadn't been back in a while and I wanted to see what they had done to the place," Finneran said. "There is so much more here that I'm not surprised it's going away. It was a nice property, but the owners did a good thing by sitting on this land. It's much more valuable."
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