Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2001 | 10:53 a.m.
A fireworks spectacular, Hollywood celebrities and thousands of locals welcomed the opening of Green Valley Ranch Station Casino Tuesday night, in what could be the Las Vegas area's last major grand opening celebration for the next three years.
Station Casinos Inc. officials expressed optimism about the $300 million resort's future, despite the struggles of the Las Vegas economy following the Sept. 11 terrorism.
Their optimism appeared to be paying off, at least on opening night, as patrons jammed the casino's walkways, filled up its slot machines and tables and created traffic jams stretching back more than a mile on Interstate 215. Even spots at the $25 minimum craps table were tricky to come by.
Visitor traffic was so heavy that several hundred people were still waiting at the casino's entrances more than an hour after the 9:30 p.m. opening, unable to enter because the property was at capacity.
"It's kind of a Las Vegas tradition," said Station President Lorenzo Fertitta. "People want to be the first to gamble when a casino opens."
Those that braved the crowds and the cold night said they were drawn by the big fireworks show, the chance to get a look at an unusually upscale locals property. But Henderson residents also appreciated the location, and said they'd been eagerly awaiting this night.
"Even Sunset (Station) has become a 20-minute trip," said Green Valley resident Mike Seifer. "I've wanted a really great locals' place. This is a place I've been looking forward to. This is going to become their flagship (property). I just have a feeling."
"I couldn't wait ... I passed it so many times on the expressway (Interstate 215)," said Las Vegas resident Sally Pecoraro. "It's one of the nicest casinos you can go to without going onto the Strip."
Celebrities in attendance also liked what they saw.
"It's a good start," said actor Christian Slater. "So far, taking it all in, I'm really excited."
Station executives and their partners, the Greenspun family of Las Vegas, say they're optimistic the customers will continue coming in droves, despite the downturn that followed Sept. 11 and despite the thousands of layoffs that have swept the city.
"We haven't changed any of our financial projections based on 9/11," Fertitta said. "We're seeing strong demand for the hotel, and it seems business in Las Vegas is getting back to normal. We're feeling good about 2002."
"If we had our druthers, we wouldn't want to open three months after Sept. 11," said Brian Greenspun, head of the Greenspun Corp. The Greenspuns own big real estate and media operations in the Las Vegas Valley, including the Las Vegas Sun.
"But on the other hand, we're putting all of these (laid off) people back to work, and you've got to open sometime. If you can open in a bad time and you do OK, it's a good sign for the future."
An estimated 300 to 400 of Green Valley Ranch's 1,200 employees had been laid off from Strip resorts following Sept. 11. Like the vast number of employees working at Station's seven other properties, Green Valley Ranch's employees are not represented by a union.
The opening of the nonunion Palms hotel-casino led to protests by the Culinary Union, but Fertitta said he's not expecting similar difficulties at Green Valley Ranch.
"We don't expect there to be (trouble), and there's no reason for there to be," Fertitta said.
Culinary officials couldn't be reached for comment.
Optimism is high enough -- and early hotel room bookings are strong enough -- that Station is mulling an expansion of the property. Planning is now under way for a second, 200-room hotel tower at Green Valley Ranch, and Fertitta said construction could begin as soon as the second half of 2002. The cost is estimated at about $30 million.
"We'll wait to see what business trends are, but we're very optimistic that we could fill those additional rooms," Fertitta said.
And filling those rooms will be a key to the property's long-term success, one gaming analyst said.
"They need to draw from the Strip to generate the kind of returns they're looking for," said Adam Steinberg of CIBC World Markets. "This place is convenient enough to McCarran (International Airport) that they might be able to get enough business from the Strip."
Station's Boarding Pass slot club marketing program should take care of the rest.
"With Station's database of customers, they'll be able to pull people in," Steinberg said.
But because of the property's location, many of those local customers are expected to be diverted from Sunset Station, just a few miles northeast of the new property. For that reason, Station is expecting gains from Green Valley Ranch to be offset by lost business at its other Henderson-area casinos for the next year.
"After the first year, Sunset will start building back up again, if for no other reason than this area is growing so dramatically," said Station Chief Financial Officer Glenn Christenson.
But then, the property isn't meant to be "Sunset Station 2," Christenson said.
There's no bingo or poker here. Instead, there's the "Drop Bar," a modernistic circular bar in the center of the pit area, shaded from the casino floor by curtains, tended by scantily clad female bartenders. And there's Whiskey Sky, a night-time hangout developed by the owners of New York's Whiskey Bar and Los Angeles' Sky Bar. Whiskey Sky is dark, intimate, designed to resemble a wood-paneled living room.
Rande Gerber, co-owner of Whiskey Sky, hopes the bar will draw tourists off the Strip. But he said he's gunning for another crowd.
"We built it for the locals," Gerber said.
And it's apparent Station's still shooting for locals as well, with such features as penny slot machines, a mid-price buffet and a 10-screen movie theater. There was even a sprinkling of $5 blackjack tables on the casino floor, a rarity on casino opening nights.
It's the traditional Station formula, says Station Chairman and Chief Executive Frank Fertitta III, packed into a far more elaborate form.
"This is the next evolution of what we do at Station Casinos," Fertitta said.
It's an evolution that wouldn't work at places like Sunset or Boulder Station, said gaming analyst Andrew Zarnett of Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown. But in relatively affluent Green Valley and Green Valley Ranch, the story is different.
"The decor of this place fits in with the demographics of this neighborhood really well," Zarnett said. "Here, this will be a great success."