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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Closure doesn't sadden Sahara's former owner

16 May 2011

Paul Lowden is planning to have one last dinner at the Sahara's famous House of Lords steakhouse tonight.

It seems appropriate.

Lowden owned the Sahara for 13 years and was responsible for much of its transformation from a small Rat Pack-era hotel-casino into a 1,720-room Strip resort.

But the property's closing Monday doesn't make him sad.

"I like progress. I like change," said Lowden, 67, who still owns the Pioneer Club in Laughlin. "It's fun to look back, but this might be a chance for the Sahara to move forward."

Lowden, a musician, had small ownership stakes in the Tropicana and Hacienda when he purchased the Sahara for $50 million from Del Webb in 1982.

He expanded the casino area, opened a race sports book and made the property's convention and meeting space more accessible from an east side parking lot that now houses a Las Vegas Monorail station. The addition of a 26-story hotel tower in 1988 helped the Sahara compete in advance of the opening of The Mirage in 1989, which kicked off the Strip's 20-year building boom.

"We put a lot of money into the Sahara and we had a lot of fun times," Lowden said.

Among them was the time he dipped into his entertainment roots to coax singer Tina Turner to perform in the Sahara's Congo Room theater.

Lowden was working on expansion plans when he sold the property and two nearby parcels for $193 million to casino industry pioneer William Bennett in 1995.

Bennett, who founded Circus Circus Enterprises, spent about $100 million on renovations, including more hotel rooms, enlarging the casino and adding the NASCAR Cafe. Much of the convention space was removed.

Lowden said it might have been a mistake for the Sahara to abandon the convention business.

"I'll give Mr. Bennett his due because he created the retail tourism market in Las Vegas," he said. "The convention business was very good for the Sahara."

Bennett died in 2002. His family sold the Sahara to SBE Entertainment and Stockbridge Real Estate for between $300 million and $400 million in 2007.

Lowden said he hasn't spent much time at the Sahara since he sold it.

"The last time I was in there, I didn't recognize it," he said. "It was a humming organization and we left it in pretty good shape."