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Arnold M. Knightly

Nevada Palace saying its last goodbyes

29 February 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Nevada Palace casino porter Rich Czapla stops cleaning up paper and cups around a slot machine to give an update on his wife's health to the property's longtime owner.

William Wortman looks at 88-year-old Czapla, placing a hand on the worker's right shoulder.

Czapla was 69 when he started working at the 15,000-square-foot casino in March 1989. But he is not sure he will fit in at the new $250 million Eastside Cannery and its 65,000-square-foot casino, under construction since April behind the building.

"I don't think so," Czapla said. "I just think it will be harder on me at my age. It won't be like this here, where I can stop and talk to a customer or ... I don't know."

"Let me tell you," Wortman interjects. "That is the plan. To keep that close feeling like we have at the other properties. That is certainly the plan we have here."

The 29-year-old hotel-casino on Boulder Highway will close for good today to make way for a parking lot fronting the $250 million Eastside Cannery, which is scheduled to open in late summer.

Wortman has co-owned Nevada Palace, a Boulder Highway grind joint with 100 hotel rooms, since 1985. As he makes his way through the property, many people know him simply as Bill. As longtime customers and employees approach him to say hello, Wortman addresses many by their first names. He listens intently as they discuss their jobs, their hopes and their plans.

After exchanging a few more greetings, including an unexpected embrace from another worker, Wortman makes his way to the property's coffee shop.

He orders a hot tea and takes a seat in one of the shop's booths before the emotion of the moment becomes too much.

Wortman's face turns a soft red as he tries to hold back the tears filling his eyes.

"When you implode, there's a human cost to that. ... You always have human stories with these hotels."

The Eastside Cannery is being built by Cannery Casino Resorts, which Wortman co-founded with industry veteran Bill Paulos in 1996.

Wortman held Nevada Palace outside the Cannery company until buying out his longtime partner, Renate Schiff, in 2005. The property was sold to the Cannery Casino Resorts the following year, with plans to build the company's second Cannery-branded property. The first Cannery opened in 2003 in North Las Vegas on the corner of Craig and Losee roads.

The new Cannery will open with 307 hotel rooms, a casino with 2,000 slot machines and 26 table games. It will also have 20,000 square feet of meeting space, five restaurants, a bingo hall, spa and a pool. The hotel will also have a lounge on the top floor that will overlook the valley.

The Nevada Palace's colorful history is similar to that of many properties that were on the Strip, but that have also gone the way of the bulldozer.

Nevada Palace opened in July 1979, three months after Sam's Town, under the direction of casino veteran Gene Lucas and Los Angeles partners Rene Diaz, Dan Straub and Bill Gallagher.

A year later, Lucas was gone and the property was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. On July 31, 1980, creditors moved on the property and forced the 201-room hotel to close for a day and the casino to shut down for 10 months.

The property changed hands but was placed under Chapter 11 in January 1983, a cloud that would linger until late 1985, when Wortman and Schiff took control.

Schiff personally guaranteed approximately $118,000 in unpaid Social Security taxes the property owed to the Internal Revenue Service to enable the dismissal of the bankruptcy. The casino also had to pay back seven creditors, including vendors, a utility company and an advertising company.

No party is planned when the casino locks its doors around 8 p.m., but one could spontaneously develop.

Back by the slots, Czapla shakes his head as if wanting to believe Wortman's promise but still feeling unsure.

"I'll see ... when you open up over there, if there is something I can do a few days a week," Czapla said.

"Like I said, Rich," Wortman replied, "we'll figure that out."