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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Park Service's Plan to Buy Hacienda Advances

6 August 2004

A casino near the entrance to Lake Mead that has long been eyed by developers is one step closer to becoming property of the National Park Service.

Wednesday, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton approved about $20 million for the purchase and restoration of the Hacienda hotel-casino near Boulder City as part of $493 million in land purchases authorized for land conservation.

If the Hacienda sells, the Park Service will consider a variety of uses for the property including a visitor entrance to Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, regional offices for the Park Service or a training center. The 16-story hotel tower -- considered an eyesore by environmentalists and Park Service officials -- would likely be removed.

The government each year authorizes land purchases using money collected from auctions of federal land in Southern Nevada.

The Department of Interior approval doesn't mean the land will necessarily be sold but authorizes the government to begin discussions with developers about purchasing the property.

The $20 million authorization is "in the ballpark" of what the government will offer for the property but doesn't represent a final price, which could be higher, Lake Mead National Recreation Area Park Planner Jim Holland said.

The government must first obtain an appraisal of the property and may pay only "fair market value" for it, Holland said. The process of buying the property began about nine months ago when it was nominated for purchase and is expected to be sold sometime this fall after the appraisal is complete and the money is made available, he said.

Dave Belding, co-owner of the Hacienda, said Wednesday's approval of funds represents a "starting point" that will likely lead to a sale to the Park Service.

"This action would signal (to other interested buyers) that the property is probably gone," Belding said.

Belding said he and his partners Michael Ensign and Bill Richardson decided a couple of years ago that they would be interested in selling the Hacienda given their focus on other investments as well as "considerable" interest from developers in the property.

The Park Service gets the first shot, he said.

"Before we seriously considered offers from other developers we thought it was only fair to talk with people at the National Park Service," Belding said. "They're our neighbors and had been attempting to buy this property for almost 70 years."

The owners have notified other developers that they are dealing with only the Park Service and haven't entered into other discussions with interested buyers, he said.

Developers including those eyeing high-rise residential towers on the site have regularly called about acquiring the property, Belding said.

Because the property has a commercial zoning, "just about anything" could be built there, he said.

The Park Service has had a contentious relationship with the casino in the past but officials on both sides say they have become good neighbors in recent years.

The agency attempted to purchase the property prior to the creation of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in 1964, a conservation area that now surrounds the casino, and had fought efforts to develop the site over the years.

The Park Service eventually bought 87 acres of undeveloped land around the property in 1973 as part of a federal court settlement but was unable to reach an agreement with the owners to purchase the 37 acres that contained the hotel-casino.

That settlement specifically prohibited the Park Service from discussing a sale unless approached by the casino owners first.

The Hacienda employs about 200 people and has more than 300 hotel rooms -- small by Las Vegas standards. It has the distinction of being the first Nevada casino drivers see as they travel up U.S. 93 from Arizona to Las Vegas.

The property has been owned by the Ensign family since 1953 and has been co-owned by the Belding and Richardson families since 1977. Ensign is chief executive of Mandalay Resort Group, where Belding is a senior executive and Richardson is the company's vice chairman.

No changes are planned at the property while the sales talks are under way.