Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2014

Bill Bennett buys Sahara

Wet ‘n Wild site part of $150 million agreement

Some pretty big names in gaming history have been associated with ownership of the Sahara hotel-casino -- Milton Prell, Del Webb and Paul Lowden.

Now, add former Circus Circus Enterprises Chairman Bill Bennett to that list.

Sahara Gaming Corp. announced Wednesday the sale of its flagship property to Bennett for $150 million: $128 million in cash and 26 acres south of the resort -- where Wet 'n Wild now stands -- valued at $22 million.

Also as part of the deal, the Sahara is throwing in 22 acres of adjacent property now used as a parking lot for the Sahara.

The deal is subject to approval by Nevada gaming authorities, said Thomas Land, chief financial officer for Lowden's Sahara Gaming Corp., which recently sold the Hacienda hotel-casino to Circus Circus Enterprises Inc.

Also, Bennett must consummate the transaction for the Howard Hughes Properties-owned land now leased by Wet 'n Wild. As a result, Bennett is not expected to take over the Sahara until sometime this fall.

Land said the cash proceeds from the sale will go to retire debt secured by the property.

"We look forward to consummating this transaction with Mr. Bennett, whose name has long been associated with success in Las Vegas,'' said Lowden, Sahara Gaming's chief executive officer, who bought the resort from Del Webb in 1982 for $50 million.

Bennett, 71, who recently cashed in his Circus Circus stock for about $200 million, plans to increase the size of the Sahara to 3,000 rooms -- nearly 1,000 more than it now has -- and expand the casino.

He co-founded Circus Circus, ushering in family-style entertainment to Las Vegas.

Bennett is buying a hotel rich in history -- it opened Oct. 7, 1952, the first Las Vegas resort to feature an Olympic-size swimming pool -- but declining in stature in this age of mega-resorts such as the MGM Grand and the Mirage.

Gaming pioneer Prell hired Del Webb's contracting division to build the then-240-room Sahara after tearing down his Club Bingo. Del Webb received 20 percent interest in the Sahara and bought it outright in 1961.

Sahara Gaming owns the Santa Fe hotel-casino in northwest Las Vegas and the Pioneer hotel-casino in Laughlin.

In January, while still a Circus Circus board member and the company's largest individual stockholder, Bennett signed an agreement to buy Sahara Gaming's Hacienda Hotel for $80 million in cash.

But following a legal dispute with Circus Circus, Bennett agreed to allow his former company to take over the deal he negotiated.

He subsequently resigned from the Circus Circus board and sold his company stock.

As with the Hacienda, Lowden has been eager to sell the Sahara to relieve its debt load and concentrate on other more profitable gaming ventures.

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