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Howard Stutz

Nevada resort might face sale

17 August 2010

HENDERSON, Nevada -- The future ownership of the 17-month-old M Resort is unclear after the bank controlling $700 million of the hotel-casino's debt put its stake up for a private auction sale last month.

Sources confirmed that Lloyds Banking Group, which includes the Bank of Scotland, had Blackstone Group, a global investment firm, solicit bids for the ownership of the 390-room M Resort. The resort sits on 93 acres near the southeast corner of Las Vegas Boulevard South and St. Rose Parkway.

According to gaming sources, at least 12 companies, partnerships or individuals expressed interest in M Resort. It was unclear how many bids were received or how far along the process is.

Representatives of Lloyds and Blackstone did not return phone messages or e-mails seeking comment.

Through a property spokeswoman, M Resort CEO Anthony Marnell III declined comment.

According to several sources, Marnell and his family, including his father, casino construction pioneer Tony Marnell Jr., made one of the offers.

Other reported bidders included Boyd Gaming Corp., Fertitta Gaming and regional casino operator Penn National Gaming.

Gaming Control Board Chairman Dennis Neilander said regulators won't be informed of any deal until as sales agreement is executed.

"I doubt we'll hear anything," he said. "Right now, it's a debt piece and there is a regulatory requirement once something takes place."

During Boyd Gaming's second-quarter earnings conference call this month, Union Gaming Group Principal Bill Lerner asked company executives about the M Resort auction. CEO Keith Smith and Chief Financial Officer Josh Hirsberg were noncommittal about the company's interest in M Resort.

In follow-up investment note to Union Gaming's clients, Lerner said Boyd was a logical buyer for M Resort, especially after the company withdrew from the bankruptcy court bidding process for a portion of Station Casinos.

"There are a number of parties bidding on this beautiful gaming asset, and we suspect Boyd has advanced into the second or third round at this point," Lerner said. "The company clearly has a predisposition for this geography given its former focus on South Coast (now South Point), a bit further north. An acquisition of M Resort wouldn't likely cannibalize its existing portfolio."

Fertitta Gaming, a new business established by Station Casinos founders Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo Fertitta to retain ownership and operation of the company's hotel-casinos, may have also placed a bid on M Resort.

Penn National Gaming, which has been exploring casino acquisition opportunities in Las Vegas for the past two years and was licensed by Nevada gaming regulators in June, may have also expressed interest. Penn National spokesman Richard Land said the company is committed to looking at all assets, but he wouldn't comment on any specific property.

M Resort, which opened in March 2009, was funded through an equity investment by the Marnell family, loans from the Bank of Scotland, which is owned by Lloyds, and $160 million investment by MGM Resorts International.

Lloyds controls about $700 million of the property's debt.

A year ago, MGM Resorts wrote down its investment on M Resort when the casino was just a few months old. Company CFO Dan D'Arrigo said the accounting adjustment was taken because of the economic climate.

"The valuations are unpredictable because of cash flows," D'Arrigo said. "Clearly, we see value in the property going forward. But it's just hard to pencil that out right now."

M Resort opened at the height of the economic downturn following a year-and-a-half building process. The operators had been banking on planned nearby housing communities and businesses to fuel the customer base. The sour economy halted or canceled those projects.

M Resort opened to large crowds enticed by a massive marketing effort. The heavy business forced M Resort to hire 250 more workers to its 1,800-person work force.

When the newness wore off, business slowed. M Resort cut staff by about 5 percent in May 2010.

Lately, there have been other changes, both in personnel and cosmetic.

In July, former Station Casinos executive Jody Lake was named general manager, replacing Joseph Magliarditi, who left to become CEO of the Hard Rock Hotel. Last month, M Resort closed the Red Cup Cafe, the casino's 24-hour coffee shop, which will be replaced by Hash House A Go Go.

The restaurant was a change in business strategy. When M Resort opened, Marnell said in interviews the property would operate its nine restaurants in order to better control pricing.

Marnell learned the casino business from his family. His father built and operated the Rio, which was sold to Harrah's Entertainment in 1999.

The younger Marnell started a computer software business but returned to the gaming industry in 2006 with the purchase of the Saddle West Casino in Pahrump. A year later, he acquired the Edgewater and Colorado Belle casinos in Laughlin from MGM Resorts for $200 million.

He spent four years planning M Resort. Marnell said prior to opening the building cost $700 million to build while the land was valued at $300 million.
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