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April 20, 2014

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Executive says new L.V. casino will increase local spending by blacks

Robert Johnson is chairman and chief executive officer of BET Holdings, the only black-owned and operated public company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Earlier this year, Johnson achieved another milestone, becoming the first black to be licensed by the state Gaming Commission as a director in a major publicly traded gaming company. The company is Hilton Hotels Corp.

Today, Johnson has set his sights on another milestone: development of a $220 million, 800-room hotel-casino on or near the Las Vegas Strip that would cater to blacks.

"Afro-Americans are among the fastest growing populations in the country," Johnson said at the American Gaming Summit Tuesday at the Las Vegas Hilton. "Each and every day this segment becomes more affluent."

The 51-year-old founder of the Black Entertainment Television network -- which reaches an audience of 50 million -- said the time is now for an entertainment-themed hotel casino that caters to blacks.

Johnson has signed a joint venture agreement with Hilton Hotels Corp. to develop and operate BET Sound Stage hotel-casino. Sound Stage is the name of a nightclub owned and operated by BET that caters to blacks just outside Washington D.C.

Johnson said he hopes to break ground on the project sometime next year.

Noting that the nation's 34 million blacks represent 13 percent of the population but account for only 7 percent of the 30 million visitors to Las Vegas each year, Johnson said, "We think we can drive those numbers up."

If BET Sound Stage becomes a reality, Johnson predicts blacks will spend $600 million in Las Vegas during the first year of operation -- up from the $340 million spent by blacks here last year.

Johnson noted that the nation's blacks spend $2 billion each year on leisure entertainment, and have a combined buying power of $450 billion, which is equivalent to Mexico's gross national product.

He added that the development of BET Sound Stage "would benefit other casinos as well."

One thing that would set BET Sound Stage apart from any other Las Vegas casino is a plan to produce a live nightly variety show at the resort and broadcast it to 50 million Black Entertainment Television viewers.

If that venture proves successful, Johnson plans a 24-hour cable station focusing on Las Vegas topics such as entertainment and gaming.

Studies show minorities tend to spend more heavily on leisure entertainment than whites. Some have suggested that because of this, proponents of a casino that caters to minorities could run into legislative road-blocks.

"I find the notion patronizing and insulting that you should regulate such a casino because Afro-Americans might fall victims to the evils of gaming," Johnson said.

While the casino will cater to blacks, Johnson said he also wants to attract whites.

"Quality entertainment is color blind," he said.

Johnson also predicts development of BET Sound Stage will lead to more diversification and more aggressive recruiting of blacks to fill high-paying positions in all Las Vegas casinos.

Johnson was introduced by his lawyer, Robert Faiss of Lionel, Sawyer & Collins, who praised the late Gov. Grant Sawyer as a legislator who worked to break the color barrier in Las Vegas.

"When Grant Sawyer took office 38 years ago, an African-American couldn't be served in a Nevada casino, let alone be employed in one," Faiss said. "Famous and beloved black entertainers had to leave Las Vegas hotels by the back door and stay overnight in private homes.

"Gov. Sawyer used the power of his new gaming control administration to break this shameful racial barrier in our casinos."

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