Friday, Dec. 14, 2001 | 10:51 a.m.
One thing is for certain now, just days before Green Valley Ranch Station Casino opens to the public. No one's going to mix it up with a place like Palace Station.
Station Casinos Inc. has built its business over the last three decades on a formula of value: affordable restaurants, low-limit gambling and locals-friendly amenities. It has built a hammerlock on the Las Vegas locals market with that formula, with Palace Station on Sahara Avenue and six other major casinos now under the company's flag.
The company's eighth, in Henderson's Green Valley community, looks more like it was built to compete with properties on the Strip.
The upscale hotel lobby of Green Valley Ranch resembles something out of resorts in cities like Scottsdale, Ariz., or Palm Springs, Calif. There are 16th Century Italian Renaissance-style frescos on the ceilings over the pit, dark wood structures over the slot floor, a high-limit room and even a presidential suite.
Then there's the $300 million price tag -- more than Station has invested in any property, including the massive Sunset Station.
"Each one we build gets a little better, a little nicer," said Station President Lorenzo Fertitta. "This is the next step in the evolution of our company."
But Fertitta also insists, quite strongly, that Green Valley Ranch is a Station Casino. Fertitta promises loose slots, full-pay video poker, $5 blackjack and affordable restaurants. He's aiming, first and foremost, for the 55-year-old and over crowd that drives Station's fortunes.
"This property is built 1,000 percent for locals," Fertitta said.
The locals will get their first taste of Green Valley Ranch Tuesday night, when the property opens at 9:30 p.m. The property is operated by Station Casinos, but is jointly owned by Station and the Greenspun family of Las Vegas, owner of the Las Vegas Sun.
Opening night events will begin at 6 p.m. with a VIP party for about 3,000 guests. In the front of the property, in an event open to the public, celebrities will arrive in a red carpet ceremony. Scheduled celebrities include model Cindy Crawford, actor Christian Slater and musician Sammy Hagar.
At 9 p.m., the property will have what officials call "one of the most fantastic fireworks displays Las Vegas has ever seen," followed by an opening to the public at 9:30.
Those that have seen it are giving Green Valley Ranch high marks.
"It's a category killer," said Bear Stearns gaming analyst Jason Ader. "There's nothing like it in the area. It's a real first-class property, a real exciting development for that segment of the market."
"(Sunset Station) was a step up in local properties, and from the start, people just clamored to be there," said Las Vegas Advisor Publisher Anthony Curtis, a casino expert. "The local crowd, as long as you give them enough back, wants to go someplace slightly upscale. I think it's really going to pull."
Despite the focus on locals, Station and the Greenspuns are also trying to draw tourists to the property, located more than 10 miles southeast of the Strip.
Phillip Peckman, chief operating officer of Greenspun Corp., calls its 201 hotel rooms "Four Seasons quality rooms."
The property is designed to have up to 600 rooms. Design work has begun on a second, 200-room tower, though the partners haven't set a date to start construction on it.
Then there's the eight-acre "backyard," one of the more unusual elements of the property. Called "Whiskey Beach," the outdoor area contains an auditorium enveloped by a three-acre vineyard, a 10,000-square-foot spa, bocce ball courts, tennis courts and a restaurant that will feature outdoor blackjack games during the summer.
A waterfall spills over into one edge of the pool from the private cabana deck. On another end of the "zero edge" pool is a small sand beach. There are even five private "dens," vertical hollow squares with huge beds, flat screen TVs, CD players and laptop computer ports.
The area is an extension of "Whiskey Sky," an upscale nightclub and bar owned by Rande and Scott Gerber, owners of the Whiskey Bar in New York and the Sky Bar in Los Angeles. Whiskey Sky designer Michael Czysz said he was "inspired by all those great James Bond movies of the 70s" in designing the club -- and the owners of Green Valley Ranch hope it will be memorable enough to draw tourists off the Strip.
"There's a lot of people, sophisticated travelers, looking for a different experience (in Las Vegas)," Fertitta said. "We have the ability to give you the kind of personalized service you can't get at a 3,000-room, a 5,000-room hotel."
But locals are the ones who will make Green Valley Ranch a success or failure.
"We hope that the tourists come ... but we think 98 percent of the gaming (revenue) will come from the locals," Peckman said.
If anyone understands these customers, it's Station, said gaming analyst Andrew Zarnett of Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown.
"Clearly, Station knows how to run casinos," Zarnett said. "The layout is very appealing to the slot customer, and the restaurants surrounding the property encourage a lot of walk-through traffic."
In the past, the Station formula has been built on placing those elements within the casino. That way, when customers walked through the casino, they would have plenty of opportunities to drop a few bucks on a slot machine or blackjack game.
There are elements that draw on that formula here. The biggest one is the "Drop Bar," a circular, modernistic bar at the center of the pit area ringed by six large plasma screen TVs. Like Sunset Station's Gaudi Bar, it's meant to be the axis of the casino.
"This is the crown jewel of the property," Fertitta said. "We like to do something dramatic in the pit area to draw people in. I think Scott (Avjian, the property's designer), really accomplished that here."
But much of the new property can be accessed without ever stepping on the casino floor, such as the 10-screen Regal Cinema or many of the property's marquee restaurants.
"If you don't want your kids traipsing through the casino, you can drop them off here (at the theater entrance)," Fertitta said. "We're kind of changing the conventional wisdom of the gaming industry, in some ways. But if people are coming here to gamble, they'll gamble."
To encourage that play, Station will allow Boarding Pass slot club card holders to use their accumulated points at Green Valley Ranch for comps immediately.
"That means all the people who are dedicated customers (of Station) can walk right in there and be someone at the start," Curtis said.
The Fertitta family fortune has been built on gambling. The Greenspun family's was not.
Patriarch Hank Greenspun made his fortune as a developer, as the creator of Green Valley. But he made his public reputation as the crusading editor of the Sun, unafraid to take on casino interests when he saw fit. Now, his family is becoming more and more deeply involved in that business.
First it was Barley's Casino on Sunset Road, opened as a joint venture between Station and the Greenspuns. Then came the Palms hotel-casino, where the Greenspuns own a stake of just under 7 percent. Now they will own 50 percent of what could be Las Vegas' most expensive "locals" casino.
Would Hank Greenspun approve?
"I always get a laugh out of what everyone else says my father would have done," said Brian Greenspun, head of the Greenspun Corp. and editor of the Las Vegas Sun. "I think he'd look at the industry today, and the people we're involved with, and he'd be pleased."
But he added the family isn't trying to make a concerted push to become casino moguls.
"We're investors in many of the hotel groups in Las Vegas through stock ownership," Greenspun said. "There's not a major difference between owning stock in MGM MIRAGE, Park Place Entertainment or the Palms. I'm in the newspaper business, the land development business."
Prior to founding the Sun in 1950, Hank Greenspun was directly involved in the casino business. He was briefly a publicist for the Flamingo Las Vegas, and became an investor during the construction of the Desert Inn.
"Had things gone a little differently, he would have ended up a part-owner of a hotel-casino," Brian Greenspun said.
To say Greenspun was opposed to gambling in general isn't accurate, said Michael Green, historian at the Community College of Southern Nevada.
"Because the climate has changed, I don't think Hank Greenspun would find it objectionable at all. Hank Greenspun opposed Moe Dalitz running casinos. He didn't oppose casinos."
Dalitz was the allegedly mob-connected owner of the Desert Inn.
Still, other development companies have steered away from directly investing in the casino business. Howard Hughes Corp., for example, had long planned for casinos in Summerlin, but sold gaming-entitled land parcels to outside operators. The Greenspuns instead swapped their land parcel for a 50 percent equity stake in Green Valley Ranch.
Brian Greenspun said it was the only way to ensure that the new casino would be at the same level as the rest of Green Valley. That insistence helped make Green Valley Ranch the most expensive "locals" casino in Las Vegas history, and helped cause its final cost to rise from $260 million to $300 million.
"It gave us a much greater say in the quality of the hotel Station would build," Greenspun said. "The only way to do that was to be an owner."
It can also be more profitable.
"Owning a casino that works is better than leasing or selling the land for a casino that works," Greenspun said.
The Greenspuns may have the opportunity to do that again. American Nevada and the Del Webb Group of Pulte Homes bought 1,900 acres of land in North Las Vegas earlier this year, and plan to develop a master-planned community there. This community will contain a casino -- and Greenspun said the family is still considering the option of becoming an owner in that as well.
But it's all but assured their partners, the Fertittas, will own more casinos in Las Vegas one day. Station Casinos still owns four land parcels that could be used to develop casinos, scattered around the Las Vegas Valley.
For now, though, Station will focus on absorbing the three casinos it acquired over the last 12 months -- the Santa Fe, Fiesta and Reserve -- and getting Green Valley Ranch up and running.
"We will build more local casinos when the time is right," Fertitta said.