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Benjamin Spillman

You can believe it! Gold Spike is getting spiffy

2 September 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- If you've set foot in the Gold Spike at any point during the past five years, set down your morning beverage before reading the next sentence -- or risk squirting coffee out your nose.

The first phase of a remodeling project at the (formerly?) seedy joint is scheduled to open to the public Tuesday and will make the Gold Spike, at least the refurbished part, one of the spiffiest casino floors in downtown Las Vegas.

It is the first tangible evidence owner Stephen Siegel is serious about transforming the Gold Spike -- a place where customers joked the smoke wouldn't choke a horse but would give it a hacking cough -- into some place tourists consider a safe, fun alternative to larger downtown casinos.

Even Siegel, who has been on a Las Vegas real estate and renovation spree since 2004, seems surprised by the transformation.

"It was so bad," he said, describing the condition of the Gold Spike when he bought it in January. "It was worse than we thought it was."

The best way to fully appreciate how far the once-rollicking downtown dive had fallen is to contrast the remodeled area with portions that haven't been refurbished.

Gone are the popcorn ceilings, decades of cigarette smoke turned from white to gray. The mirrors on the support pillars and some walls were replaced with a light-brown, sandstone brick finish that's becoming common in trendy properties such as Red Rock Resort.

The old carpet, which had become so worn and soiled it was hard to distinguish the original color, is gone and the new floors are tan with textured tile in the walkways and patterned carpet in the gambling areas. Large, flat-screen televisions are being hung from the ceiling.

Perhaps the most striking change is natural light pouring in from the outside through large glass doors Siegel installed at the southwest corner and north-side entrances.

It's a far cry from the other side of a temporary wall that separates the remodeled zone from the old Gold Spike. On the dark side there is so little light it takes several moments for guests' eyes to adjust when they step in from the Ogden Avenue sidewalk.

Improving the ambience is step one for Siegel, who admits the property had deteriorated to the point typical tourists one block to the south on Fremont Street probably wouldn't have felt comfortable going into the Gold Spike.

"Our job is that when they come in to look at it ... it is going to be safe," Siegel said. "It wasn't safe before."

The renovations may be striking to anyone who knows the old Gold Spike. But for anyone who wants a full gaming experience it will be far from complete.

The only gambling for now is on slots. Siegel has a partnership with United Coin to operate the casino and the company has yet to get the approvals needed to bring table games back to the Gold Spike for the first time in years.

For now, the area set aside for blackjack tables is roped off. Siegel estimates it will be about 60 days before the tables are in place.

Also, the bar and a pizza restaurant aren't yet complete. Until they are, drinks and simple foods such as hot dogs and ice cream will come from a temporary stand. Ice cream will be free for gamblers.

The idea, Siegel said, is to bring some life back to the property he paid $21 million to acquire back in January.

It was Siegel's second attempt to buy the Gold Spike. The first time was in the summer of 2007 when he thought he had a deal with former owner Tamares Las Vegas Properties, which also owns the Plaza, Las Vegas Club and Western Hotel. The casinos, including the Spike, are the remnants of the Jackie Gaughan empire Tamares and Barrick Gaming bought in 2004. Gaughan retained the El Cortez.

But just when Siegel thought the Spike would be his, Florida developer Gregg Covin swooped in and bought it from Tamares for about $15 million.

Disappointed, Siegel and another business partner, John Tippins of Las Vegas, bought the abandoned Travel Inn motel on Las Vegas Boulevard and adjacent to the Spike.

In addition to a Las Vegas Boulevard address, the Travel Inn had a parking lot that hemmed in the Gold Spike to the north.

The move blocked any plans Covin might have had to expand the hotel. He eventually sold it to Siegel, for a profit of more than $5 million.

If Siegel ever hopes to turn a profit from the Gold Spike, he will need to push forward with plans to renovate the entire property and tie it in with the Travel Inn, which has a two-story motel and an outdoor pool.

Once the refurbished zone is open, workers will start working on the rest of the casino floor.

The plan is to remove the existing bar and replace it with a larger, sports-themed bar and install a race and sports book and replace the old Gold Spike restaurant.

The final phase will include renovations of the property's approximately 110 hotel rooms. Siegel says the entire project could be complete by the first quarter of 2009.

"I think this place has unbelievable potential," Siegel said. "What I like is most people underestimate the Gold Spike."