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Gaming Guru

Caitlin McGarry
 

Two downtown Vegas properties announce remodels

27 March 2012

By Caitlin McGarry

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The Great Recession devastated the Strip, causing casino companies to go bankrupt, billion-dollar construction projects to stall and legendary gaming halls to close. (Rest in peace, Sahara.)

But drive just a few miles north on Las Vegas Boulevard to Fremont Street and you'll find casinos that are making a comeback, that were down but are certainly not out, including two properties that recently announced remodeling plans.

Downtown's oldest casino, the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, in mid-March unveiled the first phase of its renovation just a few days following the name-change announcement from its sister property, the D Las Vegas (formerly known as Fitzgeralds).

The D and the Golden Gate share owners, Detroit businessmen and brothers Derek and Greg Stevens (Mark Brandenburg is also a co-owner of the Golden Gate), and remodeling plans that emphasize Las Vegas' glory days (less Kim Kardashian, more Frank Sinatra).

The two properties join an ever-growing roster of downtown casinos bringing new life to a neighborhood many had written off long ago.

'D' FOR DOWNTOWN

When the Stevens brothers in October assumed control of Fitzgeralds at 301 Fremont St. after purchasing it from the estate of former owner Don Barden, they immediately announced plans to renovate the property and change its name.

The name change was due to logistics -- the name Fitzgeralds was not included in the sale of the property because Barden had licensed it for use in Las Vegas -- but Derek Stevens said he used the opportunity to craft a new identity for the aging property.

The D Las Vegas, as the property will now be known, will lose its leprechaun association in favor of subtle nods to downtown redevelopment, Stevens' nickname, D, and the brothers' hometown.

"It's kind of a tip of the cap to Detroit," Stevens said. "It's a place that I still love."

The new name hasn't won any rave reviews just yet, but it could eventually carve a place in the annals of gaming history.

"I'm not crazy about it," said David G. Schwartz, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Center for Gaming Research. "I love the M Resort, so I'm not biased against single-letter names. I think it's a property with an interesting history and a great location. I think that something else might have been a little better."

In addition to its name change, the property will undergo a $15 million renovation, which began with the opening of Longbar in early March. The 100-foot-long bar extends along a wall where a bank of slot machines once resided. A new sound system was installed and dancing dealers hired to give the casino's first floor a contemporary, high-energy atmosphere.

The next phase is the casino's second floor. A two-story gaming floor is a rarity in the industry, and Stevens said he wanted to emphasize that feature of the D with a themed twist.

Video screens will be installed along the casino's interior escalator, which will take customers back in time to a vintage Vegas-themed second floor, complete with retro games such as the 10-seat, mechanical horse-racing game Sigma Derby.

The building will be wrapped in the property's new logo, the marquee will be dismantled and replaced with light-emitting diode screens, an outdoor bar will be built and a one-way escalator installed to transport Fremont Street tourists up to the casino's second floor.

The D's 638 hotel rooms will be freshened up and given new furniture and electronics to bring the amenities into the 21st century.

THE GOLDEN AGE

The D will have a vintage Vegas floor, but its sister property, the Golden Gate, will be vintage Vegas nearly head to toe.

The original downtown casino built in 1906 is celebrating its heritage with art deco design elements and historic artifacts displayed in its new hotel lobby, which opens to guests this week.

"When this hotel first opened in 1906, the local newspaper, the Las Vegas Age, reported it as being first-class, as fine a hotel that could be found anywhere. We're going to restore that boutique property to that first-class heritage," said owner Mark Brandenburg.

Downtown casinos embracing their roots is a trend that makes sense, Schwartz said.

"It's smart because you can do that on a much lower budget," he said. "Obviously, you're never going to be able to compete with the Strip in terms of glitz, in terms of luxury. You're not going to be able to win that. But you can offer a better value proposition."

Earlier this month, Brandenburg revealed the property's expanded casino floor, complete with new high-limit gaming pit. A 35,000-square-foot, five-story hotel tower is under construction, adding 14 suites and two penthouses to the property's 106-room portfolio. The casino will also gain a new porte-cochere just off Main Street. The expansion, which will add 25 to 30 new jobs to the Golden Gate, will be finished in early summer.

The Golden Gate has undergone a handful of remodels and name changes since 1906, but the hotel expansion is the property's first in more than 50 years.

A LOOK BACK

It's difficult to gauge whether downtown's hotel-by-hotel face-lift will have any effect on gaming revenues, Schwartz said. But the Golden Gate's decision to remodel and add more rooms is a positive sign for both the property and downtown as a whole.

"It shows that they are confident that downtown's future looks good," Schwartz said. "Hopefully, the recession is over. Hopefully, as room rates on the Strip go up, downtown's more value-oriented approach will be more effective."

Downtown gaming revenue was up 13.7 percent in January compared with the same time last year.

Since the recession began, downtown gaming operators have struggled to retain a customer base wooed by the falling average daily room rates on the Strip. Some sat back and waited til the economy turned around before injecting new life into their properties. Others bought in, snapping up properties and revitalizing them.

It started when Landry's, a Houston-based restaurant company, in 2005 purchased the Golden Nugget and invested more than $300 million to renovate the property and add a new hotel tower. The El Cortez in 2008 turned its overflow hotel, Ogden House, into the Cabana Suites. The Siegel Group acquired the Gold Spike, also in 2008, and spent nearly $30 million turning it into a boutique hotel. The Plaza last year unveiled its $35 million makeover.

And the renovations keep on rolling.

Downtown is poised for a major wave of investment, with Zappos taking over the former City Hall and Tony Hsieh's Downtown Project pouring $350 million into redeveloping the area. Casino owners are positioning themselves to capitalize on the influx of people who will soon be moving to, working in or visiting the area frequently.

The table games and slot machines will be waiting.