Resorts World unveiling ‘seems like an old-school Las Vegas resort opening’

The comparisons between the opening of Resorts World Las Vegas and the launch of The Mirage almost 32 years ago can’t be ignored.

Like its predecessor, the $4.3 billion Resorts World ends a decade-long lull of new Las Vegas Strip hotel-casino development. When it opened in 1989, The Mirage was the Strip’s first all-new casino resort in 15 years.

That’s where the similarities end, though.

Resorts World’ predecessor, Boyd Gaming’s Echelon project, was conceived at the apex of the Strip’s massive development phase in the mid-2000s, only to be halted 14 months after construction began as the Great Recession gripped the casino industry.

The site sat untouched for five years until Genting Berhad – the holding company for Malaysia-based Genting Group – acquired the property and added the Resorts World name. Construction started slowly in 2015 but didn’t kick-off in earnest until a few years later.

Thursday’s opening comes at an auspicious time in Las Vegas. The gaming industry has fully rebooted following 15 months of casino closures, operating restrictions and capacity limitations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism and gaming numbers have been picking up since March, and the Resorts World opening is creating a buzz.  

A private party will kick off the evening until the public is allowed in around 11 p.m. Resorts World’s communications team have teased the potential for celebrity appearances and social media influencers on opening night.

Truist Securities gaming analyst Barry Jonas found the 3,500-room hotel, casino and entertainment complex has the highest room rates on the Strip heading into next week’s July 4th holiday weekend.

The connections are not lost on Resorts World Las Vegas President Scott Sibella, a long-time MGM Resorts International executive who moved into his role in 2019, shortly after departing a similar position he held for eight years with MGM Grand Las Vegas.

“I wish I could say I was a smart guy and that I planned it this way. But we planned a summer 2021 opening last year, either way, hoping things were going to be better,” Sibella said.

When Resorts World activated its 100,000-square-foot LED screen on its west tower on Independence Day a year ago, providing a digital fireworks display for a Strip audience scaled down because of the pandemic, the interest took hold.

“In many ways, it seems like an old-school Las Vegas resort opening,” said Bo Bernhard, who grew up in Las Vegas and is now executive director of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute and the university’s vice president of economic development.

The difference, Bernhard said, is the company behind the project. Genting’s Resorts World brand and concept are new to the Strip. The company has seven integrated Resorts World properties, primarily in Asia, including Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore and Resorts World Genting in Malaysia.

“This is an entirely new company with new ideas, and in this case, global ideas. It’s tremendous expertise that will help grow this market,” Bernhard said.

A view of Resorts World Las Vegas from the West Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center on the Strip. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Denstone Group CEO Oliver Lovat said Resorts World is “the most international property that has ever opened in Las Vegas.” The real estate advisor and casino industry consultant said American visitors won’t be disappointed.

“It is designed and structured for international visitors as well as the U.S. market in a way no other resort in Las Vegas has ever been built,” Lovatt said. “It’s a fusion of casino development from North America and Asia.”

Sibella cautioned that tapping the overseas Asian customer market, the bulk of Genting’s database, is challenging because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. It’s an issue for all Strip properties that have a large Asian customer connection.

“We have an edge from our properties over there (in Asia), but we know it won’t change overnight,” Sibella said. “My hope is it gets better by the end of the year, and we see the next Chinese New Year as a big celebration. But we’re not counting on that right away.”

More than just casinos

Genting was founded in 1965, and its first Resorts World property opened in Malaysia in 1971 as a 200-room hotel.

The company is more than just casinos. During a presentation to Nevada gaming regulators in May, Genting highlighted its place as a multinational conglomerate with energy, agriculture and real estate holdings in addition to its leisure and hospitality business. The company’s assets have an equity worth of $25 billion.

Global Market Advisors Partner Brendan Bussmann said New Yorkers recognize Resorts World’s gaming approach through its casinos in the Catskills and at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.

“While the local leadership team has strong experience on the Strip, Resorts World is looking to make its own splash and be a competitive product in the resort corridor,” Bussmann said.

Resorts World Las Vegas and Hilton partnered to bring three of Hilton’s premium brands in Las Vegas Strip’s newest resort. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Quintessential megaresort

Resorts World Las Vegas is the first classic megaresort associated with the Strip’s growth in the three decades since The Mirage opened.

The 117,000 square foot casino will have 1,400 slot machines, 117 table games and a sportsbook. A high-end gaming area associated with Crockfords, a European gaming brand owned by Genting, is a part of the casino floor along with three 66th floor private gaming salons. Two other private gaming salons are on the fifth floor.

“Crockfords is an iconic brand for gamblers in the U.K.,” Lovatt said. “It will have an immediate resonance with the gaming customer.”

Last week, Resorts World announced it would be the first casino in Nevada to offer cashless gaming capabilities for slot machines, table games and sports betting, as well as non-gaming activities throughout the property, such as retail, restaurants and entertainment.

The casino partnered with five gaming technology providers in the effort.

Through a franchise agreement, Resorts World is utilizing Hilton Hotel’s brands, expertise, technology and the lodging company’s 115 million-member Hilton Honors program to fill the 3,500 rooms and suites.

All of Resorts World’s rooms are in the Hilton system under the Hilton name, the high-end Conrad brand or ultra-luxury LXR Hotels, which has been paired with Crockfords.

The property also will unveil the bulk of its 40 restaurants and beverage options, including an Asian street-themed food court. Resorts World’s five-and-half-acre pool deck and 300,000 square feet of convention and meeting space also are opening this week.

Three areas – the 5,000-seat theater built in partnership with AEG, Zouk Nightclub and the spa – are being held back until the fall and winter months because “additional scope has been added.” Singer Celine Dion will open the theater in November followed by singer Katy Perry and country music stars Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan.

“Everything we do here is nontraditional,” Sibella said. “We try to say, ‘let’s not do it the way people have done it before.’ Let’s be forward thinkers.”

Sibella said the bulk of the planned 5,000-person workforce had been hired as of early June. He said staff training has been taking place inside the property’s convention facility. Resorts World has “strongly encouraged” its workforce to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We have a clinic where we are offering vaccines,” he said.

Remembering Echelon

Boyd Gaming CEO Keith Smith could see the progress of Resorts World Las Vegas from his office in the Hughes Center. He had an obvious interest in the development: The company actually started construction on what is now Resorts World.

“It looks like they took all the infrastructure we had in place, and built it from there,” Smith said.

Beginning in the 1980s, Boyd owned the iconic Rat Park-era Stardust, eventually adding a 32-story hotel tower to the resort. The company then purchased several adjacent lots next to the Stardust, creating an 87-acre site.

In November 2006, Boyd closed the Stardust and imploded the property four months later to make way for Echelon, a planned $4.8 billion resort envisioned with five hotels of varying sizes totaling 5,000 rooms and suites, all connected to a 140,000-square-foot casino.

A formal groundbreaking took place in June 2007. However, as the economy began to struggle and credit markets dried up, Boyd halted Echelon’s construction in August 2008. The project, a mix of steel structures and an unfinished parking garage, sat silent until Genting Berhad acquired the site for $350 million.

“First and foremost, there was a great confidence in the people that took over the property with the money they have invested and what they have built,” Smith said. “Las Vegas has a history of making these big incremental steps every so many years and giving customers more reasons to continue to come and visit. I think (Resorts World) will help grow the overall market in the long term. It’s very much a positive step for the city and our community.”

Boyd has 28 casinos in 10 states. It retained the Stardust name and trademarks, which are being used at the company’s growing online casino business in Pennsylvania.

A portion of the former Echelon project remains unfinished near the Sammy Davis Junior Drive entrance to Resorts World Las Vegas. Seen on June 16, 2021, it's expected to be included in an expansion phase. (Howard Stutz/The Nevada Independent)

Mirage comparison

When The Mirage opened, the $565 million cost left many aghast. At the time, it was the most expensive hotel-casino project ever built in Las Vegas.

That record for a single resort now belongs to Resorts World, at $4.3 billion, although the 2009 opening of CityCenter, which included multiple hotels, high-rise residential and retail, carried a $9 billion price tag. The last all-new hotel-casino on the Strip was the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, which opened in 2010 at a cost of $3.9 billion.

The Mirage’s opening was followed in 1990 by Excalibur. Over the next nine years, the Strip’s landscape dramatically changed as 11 new properties were added to the resort corridor, including MGM Grand in 1993, Bellagio in 1998 and the Venetian, Mandalay Bay and Paris in 1999.

Analysts said Resorts World won’t have the same influence when it comes to stimulating new casino development, but it’s success could lead to sales and renovations of existing Strip hotel-casinos. Derek Stevens opened Circa Casino Resort last fall – downtown Las Vegas’ first all-new resort in 40 years – and Virgin Resorts remodeled the former Hard Rock Las Vegas.

UNLV’s Bernhard noted the emergence of Genting may pave the way for other operators to join the Strip. For example, Rhode Island-based Bally’s Corp. is buying the Tropicana and Southern California’s San Manuel Indian Tribe is purchasing the Palms Casino Resort.

“Historically, gaming innovation has been outbound from Las Vegas. Now, the innovation is inbound with new operators,” Bernhard said. “The Strip is going to be better off because of that change.”

He likened the addition of Genting to the Strip’s roster to the change the late Sheldon Adelson brought to Las Vegas when he built the Sands Expo and Convention Center, along with the Venetian.

Bussmann noted that Genting’s move to develop a site started by Boyd was a good sign for Strip. The company completed a project at the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard that will add to the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion and the remodeled Sahara.

“While the future is still hazy for Fontainebleau and another parcel in the area, it definitely extends the experience for the leisure and business customer,” Bussmann said.

Will California sportsbooks lure away Nevada gamblers? Analysts say don’t bet on it

California voters will wait 16 months before weighing in on a tribal-backed ballot referendum that asks them to legalize sports betting.

Whatever occurs, it won’t change the opinion of gaming observers.

Though there is apprehension from a few Nevada sportsbook operators about potential competition from the largest feeder market to casinos in Las Vegas and Reno, analysts and sports betting experts don’t believe sportsbooks in California — the nation’s leading Indian gaming state — will slice into Nevada’s multi-billion-dollar business. 

Nevada’s sports betting industry is on pace to surpass its 2019 record-setting totals.

“Las Vegas has something that will never go away. It’s a business model that is impossible to compete with,” said Maryland-based sports betting consultant Sara Slane.

Eilers & Krejcik Gaming analyst Chris Grove said the state’s tourist-driven economy has withstood decades of gaming expansion efforts across the U.S.

“There's no reason why California has to represent a threat to Nevada's sports betting market,” Grove said. “California drive-in traffic to Vegas remains robust despite the widespread availability of various types of gambling within the state's borders.”

ESPN’s Doug Kezirian, host of Daily Wager, which is filmed inside the network’s Las Vegas studios overlooking the Strip at the Linq, believes “more legalization is better for Vegas.” Other than major events such as the Super Bowl and March Madness, “people don’t come to Vegas just to bet on sports. They come for all the bells and whistles.”

Even if California voters approve amending the state’s Constitution, the first wagers couldn’t be placed until 2023 at the earliest. Golden State lawmakers and gaming authorities also would need to sign off on regulations and procedures.

California’s secretary of state qualified the statewide ballot initiative petition last month after the tribes turned in more than 1 million valid signatures. The effort began in late 2019 and the 18-member tribal coalition sponsoring the referendum planned to put the measure on the November 2020 ballot. However, the pandemic delayed the process.

In addition to large and small tribal casinos throughout the state, sportsbooks would be allowed at four privately owned racetracks: Golden Gate Fields in the Bay Area and Santa Anita, plus Los Alamitos and Del Mar in Southern California. Cut out of the deal are California’s cardroom casinos, which offer table games but not slot machines.

The referendum calls for a 10 percent tax on sports betting revenues for funding public safety, mental health programs, education and regulatory costs.

Two items in the referendum are reasons analysts believe Nevada would be immune from California competition: The initiative doesn’t allow mobile sports wagering, and bans betting on games involving teams at California colleges and universities.

Kezirian worried that the California college ban, “sends the wrong message: that college sports are corruptible. It’s bad optics.”  

Tribal leaders said the prohibition would stop wagering by underage gamblers. The absence of mobile also would increase casino visitation, an important concern among the coalition’s smaller tribal casinos.

“This is an important step toward giving Californians the opportunity to participate in sports wagering while also establishing safeguards and protections against underage gambling,” Mark Macarro, chairman of Southern California’s Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, said in a statement.

Nevada is still No. 1

In the three years since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed states to legalize sports betting, the activity is live in 21 states and Washington D.C. Nine other states and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico have legalized sports betting, but have yet to launch. Another four states - Ohio, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine - are considering legalization. 

The speed of progress in more than half the U.S. has astonished sports betting observers.

“Who knows what will happen between now and when the referendum finally reaches the ballot in California?” Slane said.

Nevada has maintained its presence at the top of the rankings. Since 2018, 10 states have taken in more than $1 billion in sports wagers through April. Nevada leads with more than $15.1 billion in bets, followed by populous New Jersey at $14.9 million.

In 2019, Nevada sportsbooks took in $5.319 billion in wagers, an all-time record for the 10th consecutive year. Revenues from those wagers totaled $329.1 million, which was also a single-year record. 

The pandemic caused the first annual decline in sports in more than a decade.

However, according to the Gaming Control Board, the state is back on pace to set another record. Through April, sports books have taken in nearly $2.3 billion in wagers, which is up 22.4 percent compared with 2019. Revenues of $150.8 million during those four months is a 44 percent increase over 2019.

Silence from Nevada

Nevada sports betting operators declined comment on the California initiative. But at least three Las Vegas and Reno casino operators could have a stake in the expansion.

Caesars operates Harrah’s Southern California near San Diego for the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, as well as Harrah’s Northern California near Sacramento for the Buena Vista Rancheria Band of Me-Wuk Indians.

The company also spent nearly $4 billion this year to acquire United Kingdom betting giant William Hill, which included the company's U.S. operations in 18 states. Caesars also recently became one of three official sports betting partners for the National Football League.

Boyd Gaming Corp. and Red Rock Resorts are in the process of developing tribal-owned casinos.

Boyd broke ground in March with the Wilton Rancheria Tribe on a $500 million casino resort in Elk Grove — 15 miles from downtown Sacramento. The property is expected to open in 2022. Boyd’s sports betting outside Nevada is operated through its 5 percent ownership in FanDuel and includes operations in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Mississippi (all fall among the top three revenue-generating operators in each state).

Red Rock is moving forward with a $350 million to $400 million casino resort project near Fresno for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians. The company hopes to break ground on the casino sometime this summer.

Global Market Advisors Partner Brendan Bussmann said there is a healthy potential for collaborations and cross-marketing opportunities in California.  

“Every Las Vegas and national operator will have its eye on a partnership, if not multiple partnerships, in this land-based sports betting approach,” he said.

Will California be golden?

California is viewed by analysts as a potential sports betting juggernaut.

It is the nation’s most populous state and is home to more than a dozen teams in the four major professional sports leagues. Nearly 70 Indian casinos produced an estimated $8 billion in annual gaming revenues prior to 2020, roughly one-quarter of all U.S. Indian gaming revenues.

Analysts believe adding California to the roster of legal sports betting states will put a dent in the illegal offshore sports betting industry, which is easily accessed online.

Bussmann said “all roads” to legal sports betting expansion in California have to run through the tribes.

“Sports betting in California has the potential to capture a significant untapped market that is ruled today by illegal books and retain those dollars through a tribal approach,” Bussmann said. “Californians will finally get a say on the expansion of gaming in the state.”

‘An opportunity, not a threat’

Nevada gaming regulators have reported a steady year-over-year increase in sports wagers placed through mobile devices. Grove and other analysts said the absence of mobile sports betting in California helps Nevada sports books. He suggested, however, that Nevada could further improve its standing by adding a remote registration component to mobile sports betting regulations.

“Assuming Nevada adjusts its approach to mobile sports betting to allow for a smoother customer experience, and that Vegas casinos continue to invest in creating world-class sportsbooks, the expansion of legal sports betting in California and across the U.S. should represent an opportunity, not a threat, for Las Vegas casinos,” Grove said.

Nevada will get its first real test of competition from a neighboring state this fall when Arizona launches sports betting at tribal casinos and at sports stadiums.

Caesars Entertainment has a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks to place a sportsbook at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix. DraftKings and the PGA Tour will create a sportsbook at the TPC Scottsdale golf course.

“I don’t believe sports betting in Arizona will have any effect in Nevada,” Slane said.

Nevada locals drive the state’s gaming revenue recovery in April

During a quarterly earnings conference call this month, Red Rock Resorts Chief Financial Officer Stephen Cootey touted the operating trends in the Las Vegas locals gaming market. Boyd Gaming CEO Keith Smith made a similar observation a week earlier.

“We continue to see strong visitation from a younger demographic, increased spend per visit, more time spent on devices, plus the growing return of our core customer,” Cootey said.

The comments by the top executives that oversee the majority of the off-Strip casino business were validated Thursday. The local gaming markets – suburban areas outside the Las Vegas Strip corridor – staged a post-pandemic comeback in April.

Combined gaming revenues of $244.8 million was an 18 percent increase compared to April 2019 according to results released Thursday by the Gaming Control Board. The neighborhood gaming figures – part of Clark County’s overall total of $865.4 million – were a factor in the month’s statewide $1.039 billion gaming revenue figure.

April 2021’s overall gaming revenue total was an 11 percent increase over $936.5 million recorded in April 2019 and a sign that areas of Nevada are bouncing back quicker than most analysts had anticipated.

The state’s overall April total marked the second straight month Nevada topped $1 billion in revenues as the industry recovers from the pandemic. COVID-19 closures and operating restrictions in 2020 sent the nation’s largest gaming market to record double-digit percentage declines and its lowest overall figures since the mid-1990s.

Gaming regulators and analysts are using 2019 numbers as a comparison for 2021 after casinos were closed a year ago for 78 days starting in mid-March.

Unlike Strip casinos, which rely heavily on destination travelers, neighborhood casinos are viewed similarly to regional jurisdictions, which count on a heavy drive-in customer.

“Nevada’s regional results were some of the strongest across the U.S.,” Macquarie Securities gaming analyst Chad Beynon told investors in a research note.

As for the Strip, gaming revenue totals of $483.4 million were a less than 1 percent increase over April 2019. The Strip was still bogged down in April by lack of conventions that bring in midweek visitation and the absence of international travel. McCarran International Airport had just 31,214 international travelers in April – all from Mexico – which was an overall decline of 90.3 percent for the month. In 2019, McCarran had nonstop service to and from 11 different countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Korea, China and Israel, but is now down to one due to pandemic travel restrictions.

Southern Nevada had more than 2.57 million visitors in April, an increase of 15.4 percent over March, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. However, compared to April 2019, the total was down 27.3 percent from 3.54 million.

In April, Las Vegas recorded its 13th straight month without convention and meeting attendees. Las Vegas hotel occupancy was at 65.6 percent in April with weekend occupancy at 83.5 percent.

‘Slots are off the charts’

Control Board Senior Research Analyst Michael Lawton said a deep dive into April’s gaming figures showed slot machine activity was a key reason for the statewide increase.

Statewide slot machine revenues of $793.7 million was up 20.5 percent compared to April 2019 and marked the highest single-month slot machine total in Nevada history, eclipsing the previous record of $779.6 million set in October 2007.

Wagering on slot machines increased 18.7 percent in the month to $11.1 million. The figure was the highest volume recorded since May 2008.

“Slots are off the charts,” Lawton said.

Good month for the locals

Casinos within the unincorporated areas of the Las Vegas Valley – referred to as the balance of Clark County – set an all-time record for consecutive gaming revenue months for April and May. The total of $137.6 million in April was a 34.8 percent increase over April 2019.

Beynon said the Las Vegas locals segment wasn’t the state’s only market showing signs of a rebound during April. Reno gaming revenues of $61.8 million were up 29% compared to April 2019 while downtown Las Vegas gaming revenues of $76.2 million increased 23 percent.

North Las Vegas was the only market in the state that didn’t report a revenue increase in April. Two casinos operated by Red Rock Resorts that are included in North Las Vegas totals, Fiesta Rancho and Texas Station, have remained closed for more than a year.

Washoe County recorded its highest single-month gaming revenue total since July 2008 with $87.4 million, a jump of 32.8 percent over April 2019.

As the Strip goes, so does Nevada

Slot machine play saved the Strip’s overall total. Table game revenues declined 24.4 percent and baccarat revenues fell 57.5 percent. However, slot machine revenues of $327 million was up 18.9 percent compared to April 2019. More than $3.8 billion was wagered on slot machines at Strip resorts, a 15.8 percent increase from April 2019.

Las Vegas’ average daily room rate was $109 during April, 9.2 percent higher than March, but down 16.1 percent with pre-pandemic April 2019. LVCVA Vice President of Research Kevin Bagger said the improved occupancy and room rates translated into $71.74 in revenue per available room, a 29.1 percent increase over March but still 60 percent below 2019 levels. The calculation is used as a measure by analysts to assess profitability.

McCarran International Airport numbers in April showed improvement with 2.9 million passengers coming through the facility in April, a 12.9 percent increase from March, but was down 32 percent compared to April 2019.

Statewide, gaming revenues are up 34.8 percent over the dismal 2020 numbers. Compared to June 2020 when casinos resumed operations gaming revenues are down 10.1 percent.

Backing out the Strip’s 27.3 percent revenue decline since last June, Lawton said the state would be up 10.9 percent for the same time period and Clark County as a whole would be up 7.8 percent.

During April, casinos were operating at 80 percent capacity limits. The Gaming Control Board is rescinding all COVID-19 mitigation protocols starting Tuesday, allowing the gaming industry statewide to resume 100 percent operations.

Henderson and Reno rise as pandemic driven casino closures skew national gaming revenue ranks

Casinos along Boulder Highway and much of Henderson make up the ninth-largest gaming revenue market in the U.S., according to the American Gaming Association.

The Northern Nevada area that includes casinos in Reno and Sparks is now ranked No. 12 among the Top 20 U.S. gaming markets.

Both regions jumped up two spots in the AGA’s annual “State of the States” commercial casino industry survey, which was released Thursday.

The standings, however, are most likely a one-year anomaly.

A spokeswoman for the AGA said the shifting market rankings were solely attributable to the number of days casinos were closed in specific markets. Nationwide, the organization said the commercial casino industry lost a combined 45,600 days of operation because of pandemic related closures – roughly 27 percent of potential operating days.

The Washington, D.C.-based trade organization said COVID-19-influenced casino closures and pandemic-related operating restrictions across the country during 2020 had varying influences on different communities.

Combined, national gaming revenues in 2020 for commercial casinos – non-Indian gaming properties – fell 31 percent to $30 billion, the lowest annual figure since 2003.

“While 2020 was a rough year for the industry, it will end up being an asterisk as we look at revenue over the course of time,” said Global Market Advisors partner Brendan Bussmann. “The more defining stat will be how quickly each of these markets rebounds, sustains, and grows.”

In calculating the rankings, the AGA subtracted sports betting revenues from the 21 states that had legal operations in order to offer a fundamentally similar comparison to states that didn’t have legal sports betting.

The Strip, which saw gaming revenues decline 43.3 percent to $3.73 billion ($3.65 billion under the AGA’s estimate), remained the nation’s largest gaming market.

Atlantic City held on to the second slot with $1.4 billion.

As for the rest of the top 20, only three jurisdictions – Lake Charles, Louisiana; Kansas City and Cincinnati – remained in their 2019 slots.

“The revenue stat will end up being a blip on the radar,” Bussmann said.

The Boulder Strip and Henderson region collectively brought in $642 million in gaming revenues – $655 million with sports betting added, according to Nevada Gaming Control Board figures – cracking the top 10.

The Reno/Sparks casino market rose two slots with $577 million according to the AGA – $595.5 million using the Control Board’s number.

During the first two months of 2020, U.S. commercial gaming revenue was up 11.4 percent compared to the same time in 2019.

"Last year was certainly one of the most challenging years in gaming's history,” said AGA Senior Vice President of Communications Casey Clark.

Nevada casinos were closed for 78 days between mid-March and the first week of June. Surges in COVID-19 cases limited operations for much of the fall, and several casinos reduced hours for certain amenities or shutdown operations during the middle of the week because of lack of business. In Southern Nevada, four casinos owned by Red Rock Resorts – Palms, Texas Station, Fiesta Henderson and Fiesta Rancho – and two Boyd Gaming properties – Main Street Station and Eastside Cannery – remain closed.

Other casino areas in the country, such as Detroit and the Poconos in Pennsylvania, fell four places in the AGA listing.

Downtown Las Vegas casinos fell three spots to No. 19 with $387 million in gaming revenues – $464 million with sports betting included.

Despite every state reporting steep casino revenue declines, there were certain positive signs in 2020. Nationwide, sports betting revenues grew 69 percent while the combined online casino gaming revenues in four states tripled 2019’s figure.

“This year’s report reflects both the highs and lows of the past year,” said AGA CEO Bill Miller.

The AGA, however, believes the casino industry will come back quicker than previously anticipated. Commercial casino revenue was more than $11 billion in the first three months of 2021, according to the AGA. The figure matched the third quarter of 2019 as the industry’s highest-ever three-month revenue period.

Nevada casinos collected more than $1 billion in gaming revenues in March.

“With reopenings and capacity restrictions easing in most areas, we're already beginning to see gaming revenue climbing to pre-pandemic levels,” Clark said.

As Las Vegas' rebound picks up steam, hospitality workers still waiting for callbacks push for "Right to Return" bill

Mario Sandoval was a waiter at Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel’s steakhouse in downtown Las Vegas for 36 years but has not worked since mid-March of 2020 — when casinos were closed because of the pandemic — along with thousands of Nevadans in the tourism and hotel industry. 

Months passed and several hotels, casinos and restaurants reopened with capacity limits, including Binion’s, but the restaurant where Sandoval worked remained closed.

In January of this year, he received a letter informing him that he had been terminated. Sandoval, who is 53 years old, says he does not have the time or skills to pursue a new career, nor can he retire early.

“What we're seeing is a lot of older workers who are in their 50s or 60s, they just have maybe 10 years to retirement or five years to retirement, and they are really worried that they won't get these jobs now that they're competing with everyone else for the job they had previously,” said Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the Culinary Workers Union.

Thanks to his daughter, who lives with Sandoval, he was able to get by during the pandemic. Sandoval said his daughter never stopped working and took on the responsibility of covering household expenses and supporting him.

Although Binion’s has a contract with the Culinary Union, Sandoval fears his former restaurant managers will not call him back, preferring to hire someone new with a lower salary. He not only fears for himself, but also for his colleagues in other hotels and casinos who do not have contracts with the union.

“Companies should not waste time and money trying to hire and train new people when there are people like me with so much experience just waiting for our workplaces to bring us back,” Sandoval told The Nevada Independent. “I should not be replaced or abandoned for a younger worker when I have spent my life working for this company. I should not have to start my career over when I am so close to retiring with dignity.”

Culinary Union officials hope to avoid that competition with SB386, the so-called “Right to Return” bill, which would require companies to offer any employees laid off during the pandemic their jobs back, but negotiations between the resorts and Culinary Union are ongoing.

During the bill's first hearing, opposing testimony from the Las Vegas Chamber, Henderson Chamber of Commerce, Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Airlines, Boyd Gaming Corporation and Caesars Entertainment included objections about a provision they said would cause unnecessary litigation: It would allow workers to bring civil actions against employers who do not comply with the requirements of the bill.

Some opponents of the bill also said that companies have supported their employees through the pandemic and that the measure would hinder efforts to bring back employees because of its “time-consuming” requirements and the potential of distracting management from its rehiring efforts to deal with lawsuits.

A statement from an attorney with South Point Hotel Casino and Spa submitted in opposition said that management continued to pay health insurance premiums after furloughing employees out of a “concern for the employees’ welfare.” 

Mario Sandoval, a Culinary Workers Union member who was a waiter at Binion's Hotel Casino's steakhouse for 36 years, he was furloughed during the pandemic. Bethany Khan/Culinary Workers Union

The proposal

The measure was presented on April 7 by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and aims to ensure that laid-off hospitality and tourism employees are granted the option to return to their prior positions.

If passed, the law would apply to workers who were laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months prior to the first COVID-19 emergency declaration issued by Sisolak.

The measure received a waiver so negotiations could continue past legislative deadlines between the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, the Culinary Workers Union and hotel companies.

Khan declined to elaborate on the state of negotiations this week. Asked about the status of negotiations on Thursday, Virginia Valentine of the Nevada Resort Association said her group is carefully watching the bill and having conversations about it.

“It’s a complicated bill with a lot of stakeholders so I wouldn’t expect to hear anything right away,” she told The Nevada Independent

Khan said one of the benefits of the bill for union members would be the right to be recalled from a layoff for up to two years, depending on contracts with the company.

Essentially, employers would be required to reinstate a laid-off employee before hiring someone new for that same position. For example, if a former employee has not worked since March 2020, the employee could return to work at the company until March 2022 — if their employment contract allows for that two-year recall period, Khan said.

Under this protection, union members would be called back to work by seniority, and would keep the same job title, benefits, salary and health care plan.

The risk

Maria Balandrán was a buffet cook assistant for 18 years at Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson, a Station Casinos property that does not have a contract with the Culinary Workers Union. 

Balandrán and her fellow employees voted to unionize in 2017, but the company legally challenged the formation of a union. A D.C. Circuit Court denied the company’s final appeal in 2020, but no union contract has yet been established. 

In May 2020, someone told Balandrán to check a Facebook page where the names of people who had been terminated had just been published. And there she saw her name.

Balandrán has no guarantee the resort will hire her again in her same position. As it stands, she will have to reapply for work alongside dozens of people who have lived the same situation and are also looking for work. 

“My daughters depend on me and on what I earn. When they took us out of work I had to ask for unemployment. I had never asked for unemployment, I have always worked,” Balandrán said in Spanish in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “And I had to apply for [Medicaid] for my daughters, and I had to apply for food stamps, things that I had never done. It is the first time that I have had to depend on these benefits in order to support my daughters.”

Since then, Balandrán, who is a single mother of three daughters, has been able to survive and support her family with help from the state and federal government, including unemployment support, food stamps and stimulus checks. 

“Workers like Maria that are terminated and want to go back to work, would have to reapply, reinterview, compete with other workers for her job but she had before. And then be at risk of getting paid $3 to $4 less an hour for the same exact job she was doing for 18 years,” Khan said.

A Station Casinos spokesperson testified in opposition to the measure during the bill’s hearing, saying that the measure would “damage those employers who are still fighting to recover from the pandemic by creating burdensome, time-consuming requirements that complicate and discourage rehiring.”

The spokesperson did not answer The Nevada Independent’s inquiries about the company's rehiring processes — or about former employees finding out about terminations through a Facebook post.

“I know it is difficult because everyone is unemployed, and finding another job again is very difficult. In whatever that is available, the point is that I have to support my family,” said Balandrán. "What I would like is that they give us the right to return, that they pass SB386 so that they give us the right to return to work with our salary, our benefits as we had before ... I hope the politicians pass this law.”

Unemployed casino worker Maria Balandrán stands outside her home in Las Vegas on Friday, April 30, 2021. She has been unemployed since March of 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The reopening

Sandoval is hopeful that when business capacity returns to 100 percent, many of his industry colleagues will be able to return to their jobs. In recent months, some local hotels and casinos have held several job fairs to fill open positions. 

“We know those companies are going to open, and they're going to open soon because June 1 is coming. And they’re supposed to change the [capacity] mandate to 100 percent, and that's when you're going to see money,” Sandoval said. “We're a well-trained staff and ready to go back to work. Don't have to train you, or any of it. We're just ready, and been waiting.” 

A year after Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered nonessential businesses in the state to shut their doors, including hotels and casinos, most have reopened and the number of visitors is increasing.

McCarran International Airport announced that it saw nearly one million more domestic flight passengers in March, a 60 percent increase compared to February. And Nevada casinos made more than $1 billion in gambing winnings last month, the state’s highest monthly gaming win in eight years, according to new data from the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Starting May 1, Clark County will increase the indoor capacity limit for businesses to 80 percent, outdoor service will have no capacity limit and the social distancing requirement will be reduced to three feet. Buffets, adult entertainment venues and nightclubs can all reopen under these new regulations.

This week Wynn Resorts and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas announced that more than 80 percent of their active workforce has been vaccinated against COVID-19. As a result, the Nevada Gaming Control Board will allow the properties to open their casino floors to 100 percent capacity. 

Valentine said many large casino companies are already doing callbacks “to a large extent.”

“We're bringing people back to work as fast as we can,” she said. “We're confident that we're going to bring as many people as possible, and obviously getting everybody vaccinated will help us a lot with getting fully open. The more people are vaccinated, the more people that are going back to work.”

According to the Culinary Union, 50 percent of the 60,000 members of the Culinary Workers Union have returned to work, but the other half are still waiting.

That figure does not include the hundreds of employees of properties that do not have a contract with the union.

Boyd Gaming told The Nevada Independent that its rehiring process includes first calling past employees to verify that they are interested in returning, but some have decided not to return and so the company has had to hire new team members. David Strow, spokesman for Boyd Gaming also said that as demand increases and business continues to recover, the company will “step up” its hiring efforts. 

When asked about their rehiring process, Caesars Entertainment and Wynn Resorts chose not to answer. MGM Resorts International did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

Khan said SB386 would guarantee workers are not penalized or abandoned by their employers.

“Our stance is we cannot have a full recovery in Nevada without workers who make the number one industry in Nevada, which is tourism and hospitality,” Khan said. “Workers cannot be cut out or left out of the recovery.”

As customer demand increases, businesses struggle to find enough workers

When the pandemic shuttered casinos more than a year ago, Sara Vargas lost her job as a food and beverage cashier at Sam’s Town. She had worked there 22 years.

Weeks turned into months, and soon Vargas found herself guiding her two children, ages 4 and 7, through distance education. Unemployment benefits helped keep their family afloat, though her husband retained his job throughout the virus-altered period. But, on Wednesday, Vargas put on a pink dress and black cardigan and headed to the Gold Coast, a casino, like her prior employer, owned by Boyd Gaming. 

The company was hosting a job fair. Vargas arrived an hour and a half early.

Forty-five minutes later, she was signing paperwork after interviewing, receiving a job offer and accepting it. 

“I was like, ‘there’s going to be younger people out there.’ I’m in my 40s,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to get a job. I figured I would still have to look a lot more.”

What Vargas didn’t realize was that employers big and small across the state are struggling to find workers. It’s another bump along the way for businesses during the pandemic, which brought layoffs, closures, capacity-restricted reopenings, reimagined operating models and, lately, pent-up customer demand as COVID-19 vaccines multiply and people clamor for a return to some semblance of normal. Business leaders say this is especially true in retail and service-oriented industries, where the sudden change in human behavior — people wanting to dine at restaurants, browse merchandise-filled aisles, try their luck at a slot machine — necessitates a larger workforce. 

While some point to generous unemployment benefits as an incentive for would-be workers to not find a job, others say it’s a more nuanced problem. Child care, housing and health concerns could also be complicating factors.

“I really push back on the notion of, ‘it’s just easier to receive relief,’” said Tiffany Tyler-Garner, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance and former head of the Nevada Department of Training and Rehabilitation (DETR). “It really isn’t easy to be uncertain.”

DETR reinstated a requirement this week that claimants search for work in exchange for receiving unemployment benefits. That requirement had been lifted over the past year because of virus-related concerns and the steep drop in available jobs amid state-mandated restrictions. It essentially adds another step in the process for obtaining weekly assistance checks because claimants must show a good-faith effort toward securing work, but it won’t immediately disqualify a large pool of people. In 2019, for instance, the department flagged fewer than 1 percent of claims for possible work search requirement violations.

On top of the base unemployment benefits, there’s $300-per-week add-on federal aid for those without a job. That assistance runs through Sept. 6.

The work-search requirement didn’t play a role in Vargas’ decision to attend the job fair. It had more to do with her children’s schooling. With summer fast approaching and a likely full-time return to in-person instruction next school year, she will no longer need to play the role of teacher. Instead, she can resume work as a food and beverage cashier — this time at the California casino in downtown Las Vegas.

“It’s kind of scary because it’s a whole new group of people,” she said.

Although Nevada’s unemployment rate has fallen dramatically over the past year, it’s still among the highest in the nation at 8.1 percent. The peak, in April 2020, was 28 percent.

The employment-population ratio, which measures the proportion of the eligible working population that is employed, is another way to gauge the Silver State’s workforce situation. Over the last 11 months, Nevada’s employment-population ratio has increased 14.1 percentage points, moving from 42.7 percent in April 2020 to a preliminary 56.8 percent in March.

“In Nevada, when compared to the Great Recession, the decline in employment in 2020 was twice as large, and happened almost 30 times more quickly. But the recovery has been 20 to 30 times as swift,” Todd Sorensen, an associate professor in UNR’s Department of Economics, wrote in an email. “However, the share of the workforce with jobs right now is just a bit higher than it was during the depths of the Great Recession. So, firms may be struggling to adjust to these rapid swings in the labor market, but there are workers out there.”

Several hundred of those prospective workers attended the job fair at Gold Coast last week. It was the third job fair Boyd Gaming, which has hundreds of openings, has held in recent weeks. Much of the need is concentrated in the hospitality realm — guest room attendants, food and beverage workers and security personnel — but the gaming company also has several dozen positions available in its corporate offices, said David Strow, vice president of corporate communications.

Hiring workers has been challenging, though not impossible, Strow said. Roughly 300 job seekers waited for an interview and the possibility of an on-the-spot job offer an hour into the job fair Wednesday. The majority were local residents. Knowing the fierce competition that exists, Strow said, the company touts its culture as a place where people build careers and stay for decades.

“People have a lot of options right now,” he said.

Jay Kenny, owner of DoughBoys Donuts in Reno, feels the competition, too. He has been advertising job openings on sites such as Craigslist and Indeed as well as in bilingual newspapers but has received barely a nibble. His entry-level positions, such as cashier, pay $12 to $14 per hour, while bakers could earn $18 to $22 an hour. Still, it hasn’t been enough to lure job seekers, some of whom he believes are migrating to higher-paying jobs at places such as Tesla or Panasonic. 

Nittaya Parawong has observed a similar trend at her Las Vegas restaurants, Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen and Block 9 Thai Street Food. A few employees have downgraded their hours, she said, after receiving job offers from larger businesses providing pay boosts. Parawong considers her pay attractive compared with other Thai eateries, but, like Kenny, she said it’s difficult for small businesses to suddenly increase wages across the board.

“I know we’re not cheap on our people, but we can’t jump from what it is to compete with a big corporation,” she said. “We still have to at least break even.”

Money isn’t always enough, though. Josh Molina, chief executive officer of Makers & Finders restaurants in Las Vegas, said he increased wages for certain jobs but even that hasn’t significantly helped the recruitment process. Many applicants simply disappear. In his six years owning restaurants, he said this is the toughest labor market he has encountered. 

Molina thought those initial days and weeks of the pandemic — the sudden quarantine and furloughing of staff, with the restaurant industry left in complete uncertainty — would be the most difficult to weather. He was wrong. An avalanche of pent-up customer demand paired with a tough hiring environment, he said,  have put a burden on existing staff members.

“All of that boiled together is still not as difficult as what we’re going through now,” Molina said.

These days the restaurateur is shuffling schedules to make sure his two locations are staffed, worried about burnout among his employees and having one-on-one conversations with baristas, line cooks, dishwashers and others to alleviate stress when possible and assure them it will get better. 

Molina described the situation as a “buyer’s market” for prospective workers, who have multiple jobs to choose from or the option to continue unemployment benefits, which he considers a key aspect of the problem. 

“It’s an easy target because most like there’s a lot of truth to it,” he said, referring to unemployment benefits perhaps disincentivizing potential job seekers. “That’s probably the biggest factor. Another one is safety concerns because there’s still COVID.”

Hugh Anderson, chairman of the government affairs committee for the Vegas Chamber, said the pandemic likely caused many people to rethink their life priorities. Perhaps a wage earner in a family has decided not to go back to work and, instead, stay home to care for children. Others may be contemplating or embarking on a career change.

But, like many business owners, Anderson suspects the extended unemployment benefits are causing hesitation among prospective workers, especially those potentially earning more money than they did at their prior jobs. If the federal government had implemented a gradual phase-out of the benefits — such as a percentage decrease in payments each month — he said that may have created more urgency to begin a job search.

He fears the federal assistance may be lulling people into a false sense of security that could put them in a bind when the benefits expire and a wave of job seekers hit the market at the same time.

“Wouldn’t it make sense to start your hunt now when no one else is doing it?” he asked.

For families financially devastated by the pandemic’s economic fallout, even starting a job hunt may be too costly, said Tyler-Garner with the Children’s Advocacy Alliance. Money considerations for everything from hair cuts and interview clothes to child care and rent deposits may hinder the process.

The Culinary Union’s food assistance program still sees steady traffic, underscoring the cash-strapped position many families find themselves in, union spokeswoman Bethany Khan said. Ninety-eight percent of the union’s 60,000 members across the state were furloughed at the beginning of the pandemic, she said. Only about half have been called back to work.

The free groceries allow people to put their unemployment benefits toward other expenses, such as rent, mortgage and car payments, Khan said. 

Rising housing and rental prices could be another wrinkle.

“The decision to return to work isn’t one about whether or not I want to go,” Tyler-Garner said. “It’s, ‘Do I have the resources to be able to go as quickly as the economy would like to recover?’”

DETR director Elisa Cafferata said the department has been fielding more calls lately from employers finding themselves in a hiring bind. It’s not limited to one industry but rather “all over the map,” she said, including transportation companies, food and beverage businesses and retailers, among others.

The department has a business services unit that can help on the employer side, she said. Roughly 40,000 job postings exist on the department’s website.

“We certainly would be happy to work with employers to post their jobs if they have them and they’re not listed,” Cafferata said. “We also can work with employers to do job fairs. We can pre-qualify applicants. We can actually go through the people in our system and identify people who would be good prospects and say, ‘Hey, here’s a job that fits your skills.’”

The bottom line, she said, is that the state’s in a transition period that involves putting together multiple puzzle pieces.

And in a labor market that may be more tilted toward the job seeker — at least for the time being — Anderson said employers will need to make compelling arguments about why their workplace is an attractive environment.

Prospective workers may want to hear, “We pay a fair wage. We respect you as a human being,” he said.

Advocates say taxing, regulating companies such as Airbnb could raise millions in taxes; opponents say it could hamper industry

State lawmakers believe they can unlock millions of dollars in untapped tax revenue by regulating and taxing short term rentals facilitated by companies such as Airbnb at the same rate as hotels — though opponents warned that legislative overreach could lead to the industry driven out of the state.

AB363, sponsored by Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) and heard Thursday in the Assembly Revenue Committee, would establish requirements, rules, enforcement mechanisms and tax collection methods for short-term rentals brokered by companies such as Airbnb, Vrbo and other third-party services that rent out rooms, apartments and homes for a short period of time.

The bill attracted a broad swath of supporters, including the Nevada Resort Association, Culinary Workers Union, real estate agents associations and progressive groups, who identified lack of short-term rental regulation as part of the reason for uncontrollable party houses, a dearth of affordable housing and a siphoning of guests away from already established resorts and hotels.

Opponents of the bill, however, warned that the regulations would decrease tourism revenue, reduce growth of the state’s short term rental market and infringe on individual property rights — representatives from Airbnb wrote in a letter that the original draft of the bill “would essentially ban any meaningful short-term rental activity.”

For her part, Nguyen said she didn’t believe that outright bans on short-term rentals was the right policy solution, but that lawmakers needed to have some oversight over the industry.

“Right now, I suggest you look at your app for Airbnb, or HomeAway, or Vrbo or any of the other types of apps, and you will see hundreds, if not thousands of listings, most of them operating unlawfully,” she said, referring to the official (but rarely enforced) ban on short-term rentals in unincorporated Clark County. “We are not collecting those taxes, we are not collecting that revenue, and so I believe that there does need to be parity in this situation.”

The bill would require cities or counties to include short-term residential spaces in the definition of “transient lodging” — meaning they’d be subject to the same taxes that hotels charge guests. It also would create a process requiring anyone renting out a room or space to submit an application for a permit, pay an annual fee to maintain that permit, designate a local representative for the rental and maintain liability coverage for their unit.

The measure could have some substantial tax benefits for both the state and local governments — Airbnb alone estimated in a letter opposing the bill that it could have collected and remitted up to $14.5 million in hotel room taxes on behalf of hosts in 2019. Taxing short-term rentals was also mentioned by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson as one of the potential funding solutions to meet recent recommendations by the Commission on School Funding to bump per-pupil spending up to the national average.

Nguyen described the measure as a “dynamic working document” — noting that by her count, she had held roughly 72 meetings, phone calls and video conferences with individuals and interest groups on the measure ahead of the hearing on Thursday, and expected even more changes to come in the enforcement aspects of the bill. 

“Is it going to be a perfect bill?” she said. “No, no bill exists, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.”

The bill, plus a conceptual amendment presented to committee members on Thursday, included these provisions:

  • Set a minimum stay of two nights for any short-term rentals, excluding owner-occupied properties
  • Limit occupancy for short-term rentals to 16 people with four occupants for the first bedroom and two additional people for every other bedroom in the house
  • Establish a minimum distance of 500 feet between any short-term rentals, except for units within a multi-family dwelling
  • Implement a separation of 2,500 feet between the property line of a resort hotel and a short-term rental that is a single-family residence
  • Cap the percentage of allowed short-term rentals in a multi-family dwelling at 25 percent 
  • Prohibit short-term rental owners from holding more than five permits
  • Require short-term rental owners to have a designated local representative who is responsible for the rental and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to any issues.

The conceptual amendment would also grandfather in any pre-existing approved short-term rentals from the provisions of the bill, and only would apply to a county with a population greater than 700,000 — meaning it would only apply to Clark County.

Local governments would have the authority to suspend a permit or impose fines or penalties if someone violates the ordinance, but could not enact an outright ban on short-term residential rentals. The bill also requires individuals or entities renting out a space in a residential unit to pay taxes to the county or city as applicable.

Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) said he planned to-cosponsor the bill, and that another enforcement-focused amendment would be coming aimed at giving police and code enforcement departments more tools to go after non-compliant rentals.

“I know from my law enforcement time that (short-term rentals) and the bans that we have in Clark County provide a number of issues for neighborhoods throughout the valley, and our police officers don't have the tools necessary to police those, neither do code enforcement,” he said.

This isn’t the first time state lawmakers have tried to tackle the issue of regulating short-term rentals — legislators in 2017 approved a bill, AB321, authorizing local governments to adopt ordinance requiring short-term rental platforms to submit quarterly activity reports, including revenue from unit rentals.

However, that bill did not address the current patchwork network of short-term rental regulation found throughout the state — only three counties (Clark, Washoe and Douglas) and a handful of cities have adopted formal policies on short-term rentals. The policies range from total bans (unincorporated Clark County) to only owner-occupied homes (City of Las Vegas) to requirements that each unit have a landline telephone (City of Mesquite).

Airbnb lobbyist Adam Thongsavat said that while the company thought the conceptual amendment offered a fair and balanced approach, it still had major concerns that a buffer around gaming establishments, distance requirements between short term rentals and a two-night minimum would not help Nevada’s tourism economy recover.

“Now is the time to help draw visitors to Nevada in a safe and healthy manner,” Thongsavat said. 

Other opponents held that the legislation does not go far enough — Incline Village resident Ronda Tycer, a chair-person of the city’s short-term rental citizen advisory group, said she opposed the county population cap (Washoe County, which includes Incline Village, adopted its own short term rental policy in March).

“The current Washoe County ordinance does not protect our neighborhoods, or our community at Lake Tahoe,” Tycer said. “After two years of pleading with the county, we still have no limits on numbers or locations of [short-term rentals] throughout our Lake Tahoe Community.”

Numerous Airbnb hosts also called in to oppose the legislation, citing fears about loss of income and noting that their short-term rentals do not disturb the peace or affect neighbors.

“My home is not loud or disruptive to my neighbors. If it was I wouldn't have been able to do this business successfully for four years,” Las Vegas resident and Airbnb host Melissa Cassidy said. “There are all kinds of travelers. Let’s keep up with the world and provide them all kinds of options in Vegas. I miss hosting. I miss my guests. I urge you to make Airbnbs legal, but without the proposed arbitrary distance restrictions.”

However, supporters praised the additional regulations for ensuring a “level-playing field” for hotels and gaming industries.

“[AB363] protects residential neighborhoods, communities, and affordable housing, and fairly requires [short-term rentals] to pay the transient lodging tax, just like our resort hotels do,” Boyd Gaming lobbyist Russell Rowe said.

Jim Sullivan, a lobbyist for the Culinary Union, said additional restrictions on short-term rentals were needed to deal with the state’s constant lack of affordable housing; short-term rentals are often blamed for contributing to housing shortages as investors purchase properties without the intent of renting them out long term. He said workers on the Strip with variable work shifts also complain about the prevalence of rented party homes.

“Workers have complained of party houses that keep them and their neighbors up at night, and have turned their neighborhoods into unruly, unofficial resort quarters,” he said.

Local governments not affected by the bill expressed gratitude for the conceptual amendment, but Wesley Harper, executive director of the Nevada League of Cities, opposed the burden the bill places on smaller jurisdictions in Clark County with limited finances or manpower.

“We hope that the committee views this bill with scrutiny and respects the purview of local governments to properly govern according to the direct and unique needs of our residents,” Harper said. 

Lawmakers took no immediate action on the bill, which has been exempted from legislative deadlines. Nguyen said she’ll continue to work on issues brought up by bill opponents, but reiterated that lawmakers likely needed to do something on the issue this session. 

“I do think that this is a step in the right direction,” Nguyen said. “The genie is out of the bottle and we need to address it head on.”

'Right to Return' bill would guarantee laid-off hospitality employees the opportunity to return to their old jobs

After the pandemic brought thousands of layoffs to Nevada’s hospitality industry and devastated the state’s economy, lawmakers are considering a “Right to Return” bill that would give casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related workers in Nevada the right to return to their former jobs.

The bill, SB386, garnered emotional support testimony Wednesday from laid-off workers looking to return to work and the backing of labor unions, while businesses, including some Las Vegas casinos, opposed the measure, arguing that it would result in inappropriate costs and litigation.

“I should not be replaced or abandoned. I have spent my life working for this company. I should not have to start my career over,” Mario Sandoval, a food worker and Culinary Union member of 39 years who lost his job amid the pandemic, said during a hearing for the bill. “I could have hope if I was guaranteed my job back, something that company has taken away from us.”

With events canceled, travel restrictions in effect and casinos shut down for several weeks during the pandemic, the hospitality industry was forced to scale back immensely over the past year. Data from the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation shows that from March to May last year, the state’s hospitality industry lost nearly 200,000 jobs.

Sandoval’s sentiment was echoed by other hospitality workers, including Cristina Lopez, who was laid off in May at her job at Station Casinos’ Texas Station after 10 years with the company.

“This crisis is not our fault. It took us all by surprise,” Lopez said. “I have applied at 15 different jobs, but I am told that I am overqualified to work at fast-food restaurants or that I don’t have enough experience for another job. The only hope I have is for my job to come back to the way it was.”

The bill applies to workers in the casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related economic sectors who were laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months in the year prior to the governor’s first COVID-19 emergency declaration.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) presented the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee bill, invoking her own parents, who were members of the Culinary Union.

“Growing up, I was the very proud daughter of a waitress and a bartender, both of whom are members of Culinary Union 226,” she said during the hearing. “Because I grew up in a family who relied on exactly the type of jobs that have been so hard hit by this pandemic, I can only imagine what these workers and their families have been through the past year.”

The bill would require employers to offer a laid-off employee each job that the employee is qualified for (e.g. someone who conducted cleaning work for a business could be eligible for other jobs associated with maintaining COVID-19 health and safety protocols). Employers also would be required to give employees who are not hired back an explanation of why they were not offered a job within 30 days of the decision.

During the bill presentation, Cannizzaro was joined by D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, a hospitality labor union with more than 300,000 members and the parent to the Las Vegas culinary union. Taylor argued that bringing back already-trained workers would benefit the recovering economy.

“This is good for the economy and businesses. This legislation provides for already-trained and experienced staff — a staff that was praised a year ago by the same companies,” Taylor said. “To get back to work immediately, there's no retraining necessary. They're ready day one.”

However, some senators expressed a concern that businesses would not be able to hire back all of their laid-off employees given the ongoing economic struggles related to the pandemic.

“The reopening is certainly uneven, and it's slow. And so my concern is, if an employer were to say, you know, they laid off 1,000 people… The employer is likely not to hire every employee that they laid off on the same day,” said Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson). “Now they're going to have to face a court to justify why they laid off a certain person.”

Opponents of the bill — including the Las Vegas Chamber, Henderson Chamber of Commerce, Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Airlines, Boyd Gaming Corporation and Caesars Entertainment — argued that one provision of the bill would invite unnecessary litigation, as the legislation would allow employees to bring a civil action against employers that fail to comply with the bill requirements.

“Why diminish the entrepreneurial spirit and fail to recognize what it has taken to weather through this pandemic?” Ann Silver, CEO for the Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, said during the hearing. “There are federal and state laws to protect against discrimination and unfair labor practices. And there was enough work for lawyers. Let's not create new legislation that begs for litigation and class action lawsuits.”

Paul More, a Las Vegas-based labor lawyer, explained that employers would be able to defend themselves from civil lawsuits, if there was a legitimate business reason for not being able to bring an employee back to work.

Opponents of the bill also pointed to benefits that already were offered to employees through the pandemic and noted ongoing efforts to bring workers back.

“During the height of the pandemic, we initially continued full pay for all team members including tip income for the greater portion of the time our properties were closed,” said Erin Midby, vice president of government affairs for Boyd Gaming. “Since the shutdown, Boyd Gaming has brought more than 6,000 team members back to work and are continually bringing more back.”

Many of the labor unions supporting the “Right to Return” measure, including the Culinary Union, AFL-CIO and United Food and Commercial Workers Union, called it a “common sense” solution and said it was time to bring people back to work.

“Let's pass this bill and let's give people back work,” Rusty McAllister, secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO, said during the hearing. “This is not a complex issue. Just hire the people back that were laid off through no fault of their own.”

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first hearing for the bill. The committee did not vote on the measure.

Follow the Money: Breaking down more than $769,000 in gaming-industry spending on legislative campaigns

Amid the most dire threat to casino profits in the history of the Las Vegas Strip, a gaming industry hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic still gave more than $769,000 to 52 state lawmakers over the course of the 2020 campaign cycle. 

Even so, the effect of the pandemic on campaign spending was clear: Industry campaign contributions dropped by roughly 52 percent compared to the $1.6 million spent in 2018, and almost 60 percent compared to the $1.9 million spent in 2016. 

Among some donors, that drop was even steeper. MGM Resorts International has for years been by far the largest single gaming donor, contributing upwards of $340,000 on average, of which more than two-thirds usually went to Democrats. 

But in 2020 — in the midst of the pandemic, land sales and a broader restructuring — MGM gave just $42,000 across its properties and subsidiaries. It’s a drop of roughly 88 percent compared to 2018, and it puts the casino giant in the same spending realm as Boyd Gaming ($58,000); the Meruelo Group, which owns the Sahara in Las Vegas and the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno ($52,500); and Golden Entertainment, which owns the STRAT and PT’s Pubs, among other casino properties ($44,750).  

These spending trends come as a backdrop to the electoral reality of the 2020 cycle. Though Democrats continued control of both houses of the Legislature — extending their state government trifecta for another two years — Republican gains chipped away at the edges of that majority. Republicans gained one seat in the Senate, where they now trail 12-9, and another three in the Assembly, where they are behind 26-16. 

In order to assess broad trends in campaign spending, The Nevada Independent categorized and analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to sitting lawmakers in 2019 and 2020. 

These contributions capture nearly all campaign spending in that period, and more generally show to whom the largest contributions flowed and how much they were worth overall. 

The data in this story show only a slice of the campaign finance pie: 276 contributions from 43 donors fell under the umbrella of the gaming industry. 

However, it is important to note that because parent companies often contribute to the same candidates through multiple subsidiaries — a process that effectively allows the largest companies to sidestep legal limits on maximum campaign contributions — this analysis treats those contributions as if they came from the parent company in order to simplify overall spending trends.

Also of note, two legislators are excluded from this analysis: Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas). Both were appointed in February by the Clark County Commission to fill legislative vacancies, a point at which contributions to lawmakers had already been frozen ahead of the start of the legislative session. 

Though 53 legislators reported receiving at least some money from the gaming industry last cycle, a vast majority of it went to just five lawmakers: Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert ($161,000), Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro ($106,500), Sen. Carrie Buck ($63,500), Sen. Scott Hammond ($60,500) and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson ($59,500). 

Together, those five combined to receive $451,000 in gaming contributions, or about 59 percent of all the money donated by the industry last cycle. 

Based on broader trends in campaign fundraising, it comes as little surprise that these five legislators are the biggest fundraisers, as they all were either in highly competitive elections (such as Gansert (R-Reno), Buck (R-Las Vegas) and Hammond (R-Las Vegas)) or were expected to reprise a role in leadership (such as Frierson (D-Las Vegas) — or both (Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas). 

Still, no legislator saw as much gaming money as Gansert, whose $161,000 was more than a fifth of all gaming contributions. Most of that money came in the form of large contributions from the biggest gaming operators, including $30,000 from companies linked to Las Vegas Sands; $20,000 each from Station Casinos properties and companies linked to Marnell Gaming; $17,500 from Golden Entertainment and its subsidiary, American Casino and Entertainment Properties; and $10,000 each from Peppermill Casinos, the Meruelo Group, Caesars Entertainment and Boyd Gaming. 

Outside the top five, legislators generally saw little in the way of gaming contributions. 37 of the remaining 47 recipients received less than $10,000, and the median legislative fundraising haul from these gaming donors was just $4,500. 

While most industries will have a handful of individual donors contributing a plurality, or even majority of the campaign money, the gaming industry was unique in that it was functionally dominated by the top-10 donors, who combined for nearly 88 percent of all the industry money contributed last cycle. 

This is partly because of the construction of this analysis. Contributions by properties or LLCs owned by a parent company — such as the ownership of the Venetian by Las Vegas Sands or the Sahara by the Meruelo Group — were counted under the single umbrella of the parent company.  

However, the greater determining factor is simply the increased degree to which the largest gaming companies use their subsidiaries to donate $10,000 maximum contributions to the same candidates. In all, parent companies for Las Vegas Sands, Station Casinos, MGM Resorts International and Golden Entertainment all saw subsidiary companies contribute in combined amounts that exceeded $10,000 for at least one candidate. 

Similar spending patterns are relatively rare across other industries, where the mechanisms for spending in excess of that maximum are usually beyond the scope of most donors. Of note, only one other major donor — Nevada REALTORS — contributed more than $10,000 to one candidate, though it did so through a trio of PACs, not corporate entities. 

By far the single-largest industry donor and among the largest donors of the entire cycle, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and two of its subsidiaries, the Venetian Resort and the Sands Expo Convention Center, gave $161,000 to just 13 lawmakers last cycle. 

Even so, that total is a far cry from spending by the Sands in 2018 and 2016, when it doled out $240,000 and $310,500, respectively. 

That spending could also represent a final salvo for the company in Nevada politics, where it has long been among the biggest donors under the stewardship of billionaire founder and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Widely known for his status as a Republican mega-donor on the national stage, Adelson died in January following a lengthy illness, and the company has since sold its Las Vegas properties for $6.25 billion as it signaled an exit from the Strip and a focus on foreign markets.

Most of the Sands’ contributions flowed to state Republicans, with $30,000 each going to Sen. Scott Hammond, Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert and Sen. Carrie Buck. Some Democrats did see major contributions from Sands companies, however, including Cannizzaro ($30,000), Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) ($10,000) and Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas)($10,000). 

One lawmaker, Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) received $5,000, though the remaining six — a group of five Republicans and one Democrat, all in the Assembly — received just $2,500. 

With $116,000 contributed across 41 legislators from a handful of different properties, Station Casinos was one of few gaming donors to actually contribute more in 2020 than it did in 2018, when it only gave $108,500. 

Station Casinos’ spending clearly favored legislative Republicans, who received $66,500 to the Democrats’ $49,500. On average, it meant individual Republicans received about 55 percent more than their Democratic counterparts, $3,500 to $2,250. 

Station Casinos’ single largest recipient was Gansert, who received $20,000 in the aggregate. One other lawmaker, Cannizzaro, received more than the maximum ($10,500), while another two — Buck and Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) —  received $10,000 even. 

Most other recipients generally received far less, however, and 32 lawmakers who received at least some money from Station Casinos properties saw $2,500 or less. 

Contributing $108,000 across 40 lawmakers, Caesars Entertainment was another gaming donor that saw contributions tick up in a dire 2020. In comparison, the company gave legislators $92,000 in the aggregate in 2018, making Caesars just the eighth-largest industry donor at the time. 

Though spending from Caesars slightly favored Democrats overall — $56,500 to the Republicans’ $51,500 — individual Republicans still received more money on average, $3,218 to the Democrats’ $2,354. 

Three lawmakers, Frierson, Gansert and Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama (R-Las Vegas), received the $10,000 maximum, while another three, Cannizzaro ($8,500), Hammond ($7,000) and Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) ($7,000), saw larger-than-average contributions. 

Most recipients received far smaller amounts, however, including 32 legislators who saw $2,500 or less. 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent will be publishing deep dives over the coming weeks into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see previous installments, follow the links below: 

A gambler at heart: Derek Stevens opening first all-new resort in four decades in downtown Las Vegas

Las Vegas casino owner Derek Stevens gained a reputation for high-stakes sports wagers and a hands-on operating style that evokes memories of the Glitter Gulch gambling proprietors of a bygone era.

But Stevens credited his father, a retired architect from Michigan who is conservative by nature, with planting the seed for the biggest bet taken on downtown Las Vegas in 40 years.

On Wednesday, Stevens opens Circa Resort Casino at the corner of Main Street and the Fremont Street Experience. The project, the first all-new built-from-the-ground-up hotel-casino in downtown since 1980, will be unveiled more than two months ahead of schedule.

Circa Resort & Casino in downtown Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Circa encompasses a full city block – 2.78 acres – with a striking 44-story hotel structure that is second only to the Strat Tower in height among downtown buildings.

Stevens is opening the casino and its three-level sportsbook, restaurants, massive roof-top swimming pool attraction and other public portions just after midnight. He’s holding back on the initial 512 hotel rooms until late December.

In true gambler’s style, he’s wagering that interest in Circa will be a welcome relief in the face of a global pandemic that has diminished visitation to Las Vegas and led many analysts to predict a lengthy financial recovery that could leave scars until 2024.

Circa is the first Las Vegas resort that requires guests to be age 21 and over, a move Stevens said will enhance the guest experience.

A Detroit native, Stevens, 53, has been enamored with Las Vegas since the 1980s when he first visited the Rat Pack-era Dunes on the Strip while on a break from his studies as a University of Michigan student.

He has been active in downtown Las Vegas since 2006. Stevens, in partnership with his brother Greg, owns the Golden Gate and the D Las Vegas. Coincidentally, the D was the last all-new downtown casino when it opened in 1980 as the Sundance.

In 2013, Stevens acquired the shuttered Clark County Courthouse for $10 million and converted the nearly 3-acre site into an outdoor events venue. He also owned the Las Vegas 51s (now Las Vegas Aviators) for four years, selling the minor league baseball team to Howard Hughes Corp. for $20 million in 2013.

Stevens’ Circa Sports operates sports betting at all his casinos and will take over the sportsbook at the off-Strip Tuscany early next year. Circa Sports launched its first location outside Nevada this summer in Colorado.

Circa Resort & Casino's three-story sportsbook can seat 1,000 people. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Stevens views Circa name and theme as the “accumulation” of his personal Las Vegas moments: winning his first $20 wager at the Dunes, his initial impression of the Las Vegas Hilton Superbook and the first time he walked through The Mirage atrium.

It was early in Circa’s development process that his father John Stevens suggested his son not hold back on the design when conceptualizing plans for the site. He told Derek to go big on the parcel, calling the site “the most valuable piece of real estate outside Times Square.”

Derek Stevens said he took his father’s advice to heart.

“He saw the city block as one of the most important pieces of land in Las Vegas,” Stevens recalled during an hour-long interview with The Nevada Independent. “He told me to think about how many people alone will be walking in front of one side of this property.”

The name Circa, which Stevens announced in January 2019 to a packed audience at his Downtown Events Center following Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s State of the City address, symbolizes the history of the Las Vegas casino business leading up to the 21st century gaming industry.

The focal points in the 1.25 million square foot resort include the race and sportsbook with a three-story multiple screen television and a studio for VSiN, a Las Vegas-based sports betting network. Stadium Swim is the fifth-floor pool deck that will operate year-round with six temperature-controlled pools and two spas. The space includes a 14-million-pixel television screen to show live sports and special events. Stevens expects upward of 4,000 customers a day paying the entrance fee to the attraction.

Circa Resort & Casino's Stadium Swim has a 40-foot-tall high-definition screen, six pools and can accommodate 4,000 people. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Taking dad’s advice into account, Circa has an outdoor bar area spanning much of the frontage along the Fremont Street Experience.

“In a crazy year like 2020, this is a positive,” Stevens said. “We want to make sure when people visit, from anywhere in the world, that they have that ‘wow’ moment.” Circa’s rooftop Legacy Club offers guests “the opportunity to see the city of Las Vegas, downtown, and the Strip light up before your eyes.”

Last month, Stevens launched a nationwide television campaign for Circa during the Major League Baseball playoffs. He narrated the 30-second advertisement and appears at the end, gazing up toward Circa’s tower from his car window. The message was both an introduction of the resort and a tribute to the allure and mystique of Las Vegas.

A welcome addition

His downtown neighbors don’t view Circa as competition, but an attraction that will bring more visitors to the market. Downtown casinos reported their highest 12-month gaming figures in 26 years in 2019 before the pandemic crushed their businesses.

As part of the development, Stevens acquired a vacant parcel on Main Street from Boyd Gaming, directly across from the Circa site. It is now home to Garage Mahal, a 982-space parking facility and will also serve as a rideshare hub for downtown. The garage is connected to the resort via an above-ground pedestrian bridge.

“From our viewpoint, any long-term investment in downtown benefits the city, other operators, and by default, Boyd,” said Steve Thompson, who oversees Boyd’s three downtown casinos and has worked in the market since 1985. “One of the benefits is that our properties are only 60 to 90 feet from your neighbors. It gives guests a variety of options.”

Plaza CEO Jonathan Jossel has watched Circa rise across Main Street since the Las Vegas Club was demolished a few years ago. He said the new resort is a “downtown game changer” that will help the area’s economic recovery.

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Steve Hill said the opening is a positive declaration for a market still dealing with COVID-19 business restrictions. Hill said Circa is good for downtown and will present upbeat messages for Las Vegas and the tourism industry’s recovery.

“This kind of event is important during this environment and makes a great statement about Las Vegas,” Hill said.

Saginaw's, a 24-hour delicatessen from Ann Arbor, Michigan, opened its first Las Vegas restaurant inside Circa Resort & Casino. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Circa financing

Stevens, who operates privately held businesses, has never revealed a price for Circa.

The land acquisitions were completed with other privately held entities. The acquisition of the Garage Mahal land from Boyd – a public company – was not material enough for Boyd to report the transaction, said a company spokesman.

During his Nevada licensing proceedings, the cost was revealed to regulators, but remained confidential.

Stevens’ chief financial officer, Susan Hitch, said Circa, D Las Vegas, and Golden Gate are all part of the collateral package for the construction loans and will help service the debt. A six-month cushion has been built into the company’s reserves.

“We will outperform the numbers projected for our lending proposal,” Stevens told the Gaming Control Board on Sept. 9. “We will significantly outperform the numbers in our loan agreement.”

To be on the safe side, Stevens is holding back seven floors in Circa’s planned 777-room hotel tower for at least a year in order to determine the best use for the space.

The challenge for Stevens in obtaining the financing was convincing analysts that downtown Las Vegas was a good bet. Financial comparisons on the Strip were easy because of the multiple developments by public companies. In downtown, Golden Nugget owner Tilman Fertitta built a hotel tower addition with his own money while the Downtown Grand expansions were privately financed.

“Because there is not a lot of public debt downtown, none of the analysts really paid attention,” Stevens said.

But the proof was in the numbers – $684.9 million in pre-tax gaming win in 2019 – and visitors statistics reported by the LVCVA, especially the figure showing 54 percent of all Las Vegas visitors spend part of their trip downtown.

Stevens also had another ace up his sleeve: A database of active customers for D Las Vegas and Golden Gate that is pushing 6 million.

“We spent a long time educating (the analysts) on what we were doing and how we bring people down here,” Stevens said. “Nowadays, it’s tough to open anything without a database.”

The value in the land

Stevens, who is still CEO of his privately held Michigan-based auto parts company, began investing in gaming in the 1990s. His initial purchases included stock in slot machine maker International Game Technology (IGT) and an investment in the privately held Rio Casino Resort, long before its purchase by Caesars Entertainment.

“Some of the investments were small companies people hadn’t heard of,” he said.

Stevens became a stockholder in the Riviera in the early 2000s, but with the aging resort languishing, he acquired some of the company’s debt. He viewed the Riviera’s 26-acre Strip location as the most valuable piece of the business.

“We always thought the land would hold its value,” Stevens said. “At the time, the price per acre on the Strip was something like $5 million, so I thought the 26 acres was a pretty good backstop.”

Following Riviera’s bankruptcy reorganization, Stevens became one of the resort’s four non operating owners. In 2015, the LVCVA paid $191 million for the Riviera, which was demolished to make way for the current convention center expansion.

Meanwhile, Stevens carved out his space downtown.

He acquired a 50 percent stake in the Golden Gate in 2006, eventually buying out former owner Mark Brandenburg in 2010. At the time, he explored acquiring the aging Las Vegas Club across the Fremont Street Experience from the Golden Gate. But he couldn’t come to an agreement with the Tamares Group, owner of several downtown buildings including the Plaza.

Instead, Stevens turned to Fitzgerald’s, which he purchased in 2011. The property was remodeled into the D Las Vegas, paying homage to Stevens’ Detroit roots.

But the Las Vegas Club, which had closed, was never far from his mind.

He bought the property in 2015 with the idea of remodeling the building whose low-rise exterior resembled a baseball stadium. He spent nine months working with structural engineers to see if it could be done.

During that time, Stevens struck a deal to acquire the adjacent acreage from owner Steve Burnstine. The site included a small office building, a surface parking lot, Mermaid’s casino, and a strip club. The deal also included La Bayou Casino which was renovated into an expansion for the Golden Gate.

The transactions changed the scope of the project, then referred to as 18 Fremont. Instead of renovating the Las Vegas Club, which had “great bones,” Stevens said it made more sense to demolish the entire site and start from scratch.

“It got to a point where piecemealing everything together causes you a lot more long-term problems,” Stevens said. “There were certain elements of the Las Vegas Club I liked, but I didn’t want to spend the money to fix.”

He took his father’s advice to heart.

“My dad said a city block like that was begging for a major investment,” Stevens said.

Circa Resort & Casino. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A hands-on operator

Derek’s brother Greg Stevens shuns the limelight. He lives in Michigan and is an engineer by trade. He visits Las Vegas a few times a month and has been key in helping turn the two aging downtown casinos into entertainment attractions.

Derek Stevens is proud that his operating team is small and oversees all elements of the casinos and sports betting. They have been together for several years.

He also knows his customers because he spends time with them. When casinos reopened after the 78-day shutdown, Stevens was at the D’s Long Bar, wearing a mask and sitting among his guests. His corporate office is now at Circa, but he loves to walk Fremont Street between his three properties, stopping to talk with downtown visitors.

He also speaks regularly to his more than 21,500 followers on Twitter. Think of legendary downtown operators Benny Binion and Jack Binion, Sam Boyd and Bill Boyd, and Jackie Gaughan, all in the social media era.

Stevens’ outside-the-box promotions draw attention.

In 2018, he stood to win $1 million on a $25,000 wager he made on Michigan winning the NCAA basketball championship. He fell a game short.

When he brought a replica of Belgium’s Manneken Pis statue to the D’s entrance off Third Street in 2015, he teased the announcement with a two-minute YouTube video of a pseudo board meeting that included scantily clad Party Pit dealers and juggling bartenders.

Ahead of June’s casino reopenings, Stevens paid for 2,000 one-way flights to Las Vegas from more than three dozen U.S. destinations on five airline carriers between June 3 and June 5. Visitors were responsible for their return flights and hotel rooms.

He estimated fewer than a quarter of the guests stayed at either the D or Golden Gate.

“Whether people decide to visit my casinos or explore other parts of the city, this is a strong indicator of how Las Vegas can quickly be restored to its former glory,” Stevens said. “I just wanted to jump in and support Las Vegas.”

Howard Stutz is a freelance gaming reporter for The Nevada Independent and the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He has been a Nevada journalist for 30 years. He can be reached at On Twitter: @howardstutz