Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Viva Las Vegas?

I spent Wednesday afternoon here in Minnesota attending a live broadcast of a local talk show. On this particular day the show was being broadcast from Mystic Lake, a huge Native American casino in the Twin Cities area.

The casino broadcast was part of a big promotion Mystic Lake is doing right now, which features the awarding of numerous trips to Las Vegas. Those of us attending today's broadcast of the talk show had a chance to win a trip to Vegas. Five nights at Palazzo and $5,000. Nice prize, eh?

I didn't win. Dream of a trip to Vegas this spring is dead once again.

The show featured a variety of Vegas-related segments, and the set had plenty of Vegas decor.

The show also featured a pretty good Elvis impersonator, Anthony Shore. It was pointed out to us that you can't have a Vegas-themed show without an Elvis impersonator.

And it made me wonder why that is.

While I'm not an Elvis in Vegas historian, I realize he had a good run at the end of his life as a fixture in Vegas, performing at the former Las Vegas Hilton when he wasn't touring the country. He came to Minnesota a couple of times, at least, in the 1970s, from what I could tell doing 60 seconds of research.

Given his unique look and style, and his years in Vegas, it's not a surprise that imitation of "The King" has been a part of the Vegas fabric over the years.

But the guy has been dead for nearly 40 years. Why do we still have impersonators performing in Vegas lounges these days? No, it's not very common these days, but it happens. So do weddings performed by an Elvis impersonator, I've been told repeatedly.

Elvis impersonators aren't a fixture of the Vegas entertainment scene these days, and his music will endure long after all of us take a dirt nap, but it does seem odd to me that in 2016 the Vegas/Elvis cliche remains.

I think one of the reasons why Elvis still gets some love in Vegas is that his music, look and style are so distinct.

Sinatra was huge, and plenty of people can likely rattle off a bunch of his tunes. But I'll bet a random survey of adults 18-49 would demonstrate a lot more familiarity with the music of Elvis over the music of "Ol' Blue Eyes."

While I can picture Sinatra, his look and style don't stand out like that of Elvis. That helps the legend live on, without a doubt.

You can't forget the past, but Vegas makes a habit of reinventing itself. Yeah, older properties such as Lady Luck downtown and Sahara on the strip were revitalized without demolition, but tearing down and building new is seemingly essential in Vegas.

Wayne Newton seems to have no problem resurfacing from decade to decade, but Vegas doesn't have much time for old-timers these days. That's what Branson, Missouri, is for.

In a city that seems to demand fresh, new and exciting on a weekly basis, it's a bit of a surprise that there's still an affection for Elvis nearly 40 years after his death.

Britney Spears and Celine Dion should be so lucky.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Is Derek Stevens the worst thing to happen to Las Vegas?

Last week I was minding my own business late one evening when broke the news that the brothers Stevens were buying three small properties under the canopy of the Fremont Street Experience. I had better things to do, yet I stopped everything I was doing to type my reaction to the news.

The Stevens brothers own The D and Golden Gate, two very different casino/hotel properties in downtown Las Vegas. Last year they purchased the fledgling Vegas Club, a dying casino that had been all but gutted. The hotel towers had been shuttered for a couple of years and the retail and dining portions of the building were vacant at the time of the purchase. With the Stevens brothers purchasing the Vegas Club it was time to nail that coffin shut. We collectively await the future of the property. Given their past success, expectations for Vegas Club are high, and rightfully so. The lads know what they're doing.

Although I periodically hear references to Derek and Greg Stevens, it's Derek that's the face of the operation. Derek is pictured in D promotions, he is known to hang out and mingle with D customers and he doesn't shy away from the media. As I type this I'm listening to him talk about his latest acquisitions on the Vital Vegas podcast.

As the podcast reiterates, Derek is not a faceless Fremont Street casino owner. I think that's pretty cool. Most casinos are owned by corporations, and their customers are unable to put a face or name to the casino's ownership. The only other 2016 casino mogul who comes to mind off the top of my head is Steve Wynn. (I don't think Sheldon Adelson has that much street cred.)

But being the name and the face of a casino, or a group of casinos, comes at a price.

The internet reaction to last week's acquisition news was hot and heavy. The Stevens brothers purchased two small casino properties last week, as well as the only strip club in downtown Las Vegas, Glitter Gulch. The businesses they purchased are adjacent to Golden Gate and the former Vegas Club properties. (There's a souvenir shop sandwiched between the acquisitions on the Vegas Club side of Fremont, people have noted.)

There wasn't much excitement about the acquisitions, as it doesn't appear that anybody was rooting for either casino to shut down. But that's the plan for all three businesses.

On the Golden Gate side is La Bayou, which is best known for its cheap gut-rot daiquiris. On the Vegas Club side is Mermaids, which is known for its cheap eats, including odd deep-fried foods.

Both casinos are small slot machine rooms, there are no table games. The loss of the gaming along Fremont Street isn't a big deal. There are thousands of machines to choose from up and down Fremont.

While I said there wasn't much excitement regarding the acquisition news, that doesn't mean everybody was sad to learn of the impending closing of the businesses. Plenty of people couldn't care less that two colorful, quirky casinos are closing down. The gaming, daiquiris and deep-fried Twinkies offered by the properties are of no appeal to plenty of people, so the loss of the game rooms doesn't affect them at all. And plenty of people said so via Facebook discussions, Vital Vegas comments and news report comments.

There is a faction of Vegas fanatics that welcomes anything the Stevens brothers do with any property downtown, as they are confident that properties under their thumb will be put to higher and better uses.

I wrote within an hour of the news breaking that I was saddened by the loss of the small, quirky properties that help give Fremont Street its colorful character. Even though I am confident the Stevens brothers will hit another home run, that doesn't stop me from being sad.

And I'm not the only one. Plenty of people proclaimed that their downtown Vegas experience is being ruined.

It seems that there are two things people love about the small game rooms. Some people love them because the complimentary cocktails for gamblers come fast and furious. If you sit down at a machine and insert $20 you'll receive more than your share of drinks in short order, I've read.

Others really love the cheap, low-fat snacks served at Mermaids. There are cheap eats to be had downtown, but the grub at Mermaids is about as cheap as it comes.

Yeah, people are bummed out about the impending closures for a few reasons. Some accept it as part of the inevitable change that defines Vegas. Others, however, are convinced that Derek Stevens, specifically, is the spawn of Satan. Perhaps the brothers are twins. Derek is clearly the evil twin, therefore Greg by definition must be the good one.

Derek is a bloodthirsty throwback to the days of mob rule, aiming to drive up prices along Fremont Street at all costs, and bleed every dollar he can out of its tourists. He is single-handedly ruining downtown Las Vegas by trying to win a real life game of Monopoly. He's ruining downtown, absolutely destroying it, some have proclaimed.

Those folks are probably right.

You have to believe that buying a major casino like The D, formerly Fitzgeralds, and pouring cash into its upgrade, renovation and rebranding was driven by a desire to bleed and/or drive away those who have enjoyed downtown during the past decade.

And we all know that when you invest in a property you should never invest in its improvement. The goal should be to squeeze every drop out of the oranges you have purchased, allowing the property to deteriorate, then sell it for less than you paid years earlier.

Sarcasm aside, I've stayed at The D. I'm not a high roller, yet I have stayed there a couple of times. The property is in good shape and the rates have been very reasonable. And that's before taking advantage of offers I've received as a member of the casino's players club. It has been a couple of years since I last stayed there, so perhaps the deals of the past are now ghosts, but I've found The D to be an inviting property, and not one designed to siphon cash out of my pocket. You get what you pay for, and more.

Nobody wants to be the low-rent, rundown casino on the block. But those are the casinos that are ripe for the picking, and if you have a healthy checkbook when you buy them, you can invest in a much more prosperous future, should you so desire. The Stevens boys clearly set out to do so when they make a purchase, and that doesn't make them public enemy No. 1 in my book.

Do the brothers need to purchase ancillary properties such as Mermaids and La Bayou to succeed? No, they don't, but they're in a position to do so, and if the loss of those colorful, goofy game rooms is the price visitors pay for the success the Stevens brothers have reaped, that's the way it goes. Fremont Street will not be ruined for everyone as a result of the acquisitions, only for those who proclaim it via the internet.

I'm saddened by the loss of the last of the small game rooms on Fremont Street, but I'm expecting bigger and better things to come from their demise. Derek Stevens is catching a lot of bricks from plenty of people, but I'll toss a bouquet his direction. He's investing in downtown rather than maintaining the status quo. And he is far from monopolizing the casino scene along Fremont Street. He couldn't ruin downtown if he tried, despite what the naysayers will tell you.

And despite all those who bemoan his negative effects upon downtown, I have yet to read one comment bemoaning the loss of Glitter Gulch. Every comment from anyone who has ever visited that strip club oozes with regret.

Congratulations Derek, you did OK.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Can we have a jazz funeral for La Bayou?

It's not quite as big of a deal as the closing of Riviera, or even the Las Vegas Club, yet somehow it feels like it to me.

I hadn't planned to take a four-month sabattical from this blog – and I have no shortage of ideas I'd like to write about – but here I am, shortly before 1 a.m. here in Minnesota typing my first entry in months, and it's about the closing of three insignificant properties under the canopy of the Fremont Street Experience.

I just stumbled upon the news moments ago, courtesy of Vital Vegas, one of my regular go-to sources for Vegas information. Within the past hour the Vital Vegas guru, who by day works for the Fremont Street Experience, reported that Derek Stevens, the face of The D and Golden Gate casinos, has purchased three downtown businesses, and presumably the property upon which they sit. Stevens and his brother, who seems to shun the limelight, are the owners of Mermaids and La Bayou, two slots only game rooms, and Glitter Gulch, the downtown strip club.

As Vital Vegas nicely explains, these businesses – which I presume have been under the same ownership prior to Stevens' purchase – are strategically beneficial to the growing Stevens empire. La Bayou is adjacent to Golden Gate, the smaller casino owned by the brothers Stevens, and Mermaids and Glitter Gulch are next to the shuttered Las Vegas Club, which the Stevens own and plan to redevelop.

The Stevens boys run excellent casinos, and their acquisition of the sickly Vegas Club ensures they'll turn the tired old property into a successful downtown hotspot when all is said and done. The acquisition of the small casinos and the strip club will help them grow the Golden Gate and presumably create a much larger frontage for the new Vegas Club development.

And yet I'm saddened by this.

There was nothing extraordinary about La Bayou or Mermaids. I'm pretty sure both have been re-imagined since my first visit downtown more than 19 years ago. La Bayou is smaller than some of the gift shops on Fremont Street, and I don't go there to gamble. But it has a fun, colorful theme and sells all those fancy daiquiris that people covet when in New Orleans.

Mermaids has a larger gaming floor, comparable to the larger gift shops on Fremont, and its quirky draw is its weird, cheap food.

Years ago I could find all sorts of odd, cheap eats along the strip. The days of the half-pound hot dog and cheap strawberry shortcake seem to be over. Mermaids offered a few wacky, relatively cheap eats that were fun to indulge in when you were in Vegas. And I enjoyed its colorful facade.

According to Vital Vegas, it is expected both of those game rooms, and the strip club, will be out of business in about two months.

I've wondered why there's a strip club on Fremont, and only one. I suspect that its existence is a result of some quirky legal manuever in the past that grandfathered it in, but I've never asked. I won't miss it, but I always appreciated the "Golden Goose" and "Glitter Gulch" neon signs above the building.

Change is constant in Vegas, and I've seen plenty of it in the Fremont area over the years. A lot of it has been for the better, no doubt. But losing a few unique, small businesses saddens me. I liked the colorful diversity of those little businesses. Yeah, there are a million slot machines in the greater Vegas area, and plenty downtown, but when the property acquired by the Stevens' is absorbed by their larger holdings, we'll likely never see cute little game rooms juxtaposed with big downtown casinos ever again.

We bemoan the loss of local, independent, mom-and-pop businesses in towns across America. When Walmart moves into an area, there's a certain amount of dread that comes with it, because the mighty retailer will put nails in the coffins of at least a few local businesses.

Nobody would compare the Stevens to the Waltons, but the Stevens empire is having a similar affect upon the Fremont district, even if the Stevens are building Targets instead of Walmarts.

The three shuttering businesses may not evoke the same emotion as the Riviera's closing did a year ago, but their existence were the last connections we had to the smaller, simpler casinos of yesteryear.