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 vitalvegas.com 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.


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