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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Castaways Sinks into History

12 January 2006

LAS VEGAS -- It took two separate construction phases and a little more than four years for the builders of the Showboat to complete the casino's 19-story, 450-room hotel tower during the mid-1970s.

"Station Casinos and its demolition partners took all of 18 seconds to bring the building down early Wednesday morning.

"With 195 pounds of explosives placed in 191 locations on four of the building's floors, the hotel tower that spent the last five years of its life known as the Castaways came to a crumbling end a little after 7 a.m. The implosion wiped another piece of Las Vegas history from the city's eastern skyline where the Boulder Highway becomes Fremont Street.

""I was surprised because he got a little emotional," Nancy Houssels said of her husband, J. Kell Houssels Jr., one of the Showboat's founding partners who sat on the casino's board of directors for about 40 years.

""How could you not be a little sad? We had a lot of good years here," she said.

"About 100 onlookers -- guests of general contractor Martin Harris, LVI Environmental of Nevada and implosion contractor CDI of Baltimore and a gathering of media members -- watched from an enclosed compound as the explosives brought the tower crashing back to earth and left a four-story-high pile of rubble. The 83-year-old Houssels and his wife were the only two people with a connection to the casino's past attending the event as guests.

"Guests received baseball caps and T-shirts to mark the occasion.

"The implosion was described by CDI officials as picture-perfect as the building collapsed inward a few seconds after the loud charges shook the surrounding area. A low cloud of dust hovered for more than an hour in eastern Las Vegas and over U.S. Highway 95.

""This was a bit more challenging because it was an all-steel-frame structure," said CDI President Mark Loizeaux, whose company handled 13 previous Las Vegas hotel implosions.

"Also, because of the homes built in the 1950s and 1960s bordering the property on Oakey Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, CDI had to use less than 200 pounds of explosives, he said.

""The vintage buildings made this a very unique project," Loizeaux said.

"The implosion brought to end the demolition of the buildings on the 26-acre Castaways site that began in July when bulldozers and construction equipment tore down the parking garage, casino and low-rise motel-style units.

"Cleanup crews will spend the next 60 days hauling away the tower's remains, much of which, including 4,300 tons of steel, will be recycled.

"Demolishing the casino, which had been closed for two years, gives Station Casinos a vacant parcel for development.

""We determined early on in our site evaluations that most of the structures weren't usable," said Station Casinos spokeswoman Lori Nelson, one of a handful of company executives that braved the 40-degree morning temperatures to watch the 52-year-old property's demise.

""As a company, we're more focused on finishing Red Rock Resort than any of our future projects," Nelson said. The $925 million hotel-casino in Summerlin is expected to open in the spring.

"The community's growth toward the western end of the Las Vegas Valley in the 1980s, J. Kell Houssels said, probably helped spell the end of the property he refused to call Castaways.

"Up until 2000, the hotel-casino was known as the Showboat, a Mississippi riverboat-themed property that opened in 1954.

"Houssels' father and his partners took over the small casino, which was built by the ownership of the Desert Inn, and added 24 bowling lanes in 1959. By 1973, the first nine stories of the Showboat's hotel tower opened. In 1976, the final 10 stories were added, giving the property 500 hotel rooms that included several low-rise motel buildings.

"In the 1980s, the bowling center grew to 106 lanes and held televised professional matches and amateur events. The Showboat's sports pavilion became the home to low-priced boxing, wrestling and roller derby events.

""We really were the first true locals casino," Houssels said. "It was successful because it was run by local people who were well-known in the community, who paid attention to their guests. The town just stopped growing in this direction, and that didn't help us much."

"Las Vegas attorney Greg Nasky, who spent 15 years on the Showboat's board of directors and helped the casino gain listing on the American Stock Exchange in 1973, said the company built the hotel tower in phases because that was the way the project had to be financed.

""That's the way we did it. We'd get a leg up, get some extra money and get started on the next project," said Nasky, who now is with Kummer Kaempfer Bonner Renshaw & Ferrario. "We developed a loyal following at the Showboat, and we were probably the original design for all the local casinos that followed."

"Nasky, who was interviewed by phone from his part-time home on Honolulu, said he was sorry to miss the implosion. Like Houssels, he refused to refer to the property as the Castaways.

""I think it was hard for our loyal customers to look at the casino as the Castaways also," Nasky said.

"Harrah's Entertainment bought the Showboat in 1998, and by that time, the company had moved to the New York Stock Exchange and Showboat properties had opened in Atlantic City, New Orleans, Illinois and Sydney, Australia.

"Harrah's ran the Showboat for two years before selling to a group led by casino operator Mike Villamor.

"Villamor renamed the casino the Castaways and gave the property the look and feel of a tropical island. But a few coats of paint and a South Pacific theme did not produce enough revenue.

"Three years later and $50 million in debt, the Castaways declared bankruptcy. When it closed in January 2004 seven months after the bankruptcy filing, some 800 people were left unemployed.

"Station Casinos bought the site 14 months ago for $33.7 million.

"To Houssels, whatever Station Casinos builds on the site won't match the Showboat and its paddle-wheel theme.

""We had a good run, and it was hard to see the building come to an end," he said.