Although the energy of Tony Hsieh and other non-gamers has helped fuel the transformation of downtown Las Vegas, a cadre of Fremont Street casino owners also deserve credit. Derek Stevens is prominent among them.
Stevens is overseeing two downtown remodeling projects: the addition of a new high-roller gaming area and 16 suites to the historic Golden Gate (the building housed the cityâs first hotel, which opened in 1906), and the transformation of Fitzgeralds into The D.
Of the two, the Golden Gate is the smaller job. The high-limit pit is about to open, as is the first floor of suites, with the rest of the rooms to be completed by the end of May. The expansion has been executed with assembly-line precision and will open on time.
Turning Fitzgeralds into The D will take a little more timeâat least four months. Stevens and his brother Gregory bought the rundown property at the end of October and decided to do a full remodel, followed by a rebranding.
They are turning one of the propertyâs biggest challengesâits two-story casinoâinto an attraction. Historically, multi-level casinos havenât performed well, which is why you donât see many of them. But Stevens is confident that, after the remodel, the novelty will be a draw.
âI wanted to take the aspect thatâs different,â he says, âand truly differentiate.â So the first floor will be louder, more contemporary, with more LED lighting, while the second floor is more vintage, with prominent neon throughout. Itâs going to feature classic games, including coin-operated slots and retro aspects from the 1950s through the â80s. Itâs a way of accommodating the old downtown with the new indoor/outdoor party vibe that outdoor barsâwhich have spread since Stevens introduced One Bar at the Golden Gate in 2009âhave inspired.
At The D, Stevens picked a name that might take some getting used to. âThe Dâ doesnât immediately suggest a hotel-casino, but itâs got a certain old-school charm. Itâs certainly not the same kind of focus-group-tested, picked-by-committee name as âVdaraâ or âAria.â
âWe came up with it ourselves,â Stevens says. âIn reality, it stands for downtown. Itâs also a tip of the cap to Detroit.â Stevens is quick to point out that The D will not be a âDetroit-themed casinoâ by any stretch of the imagination, but itâs Stevensâ way of paying tribute to his hometown. It doesnât hurt that many people call him âDâ for short.
Some downtowners havenât fallen in love with the name, but Stevens isnât worried.
âIâm a firm believer that the name does not make a casino, but the hotel-casino makes the name,â he says. âI think by the fall, when everything is up and running, people will come here and say, âWow, this is downtown?â Iâm comfortable with the design. Itâs going to be a nice property, oriented around fun. Thatâs one of my key themes in Golden Gate. When people come out, theyâre having a pretty good time. Whether theyâre upstairs or downstairs, the same will be true at The D.â
Stevensâwho also owns the Las Vegas 51s baseball teamâloves downtown Las Vegas, but in many ways his heart is still in Detroit. Thatâs not a bad thing. Heâs deeply committed to buying American, and here in Southern Nevada heâs even more committed to buying locally.
âUsually, you create your designs then quote it out to Chinese manufacturers,â he says. âBut I wanted to stay local. Iâm glad I stood firm. We got a great deal from a Las Vegas-based company thatâs providing all of the furniture for the property. Iâm awfully proud that we were able to do that.â
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLVâs Center for Gaming Studies.
Downtown is big business for Detroit native
Continuing to support the rebirth of downtown Las Vegas is Derek Stevens. He bet big on the city when he purchased the Golden Gate in 2008, and after an overhaul the oldest hotel in town shines brand new again. By this October, Stevens will change the face of downtown again with the grand re-opening of the former Fitzgeralds, which has already been rebranded as The D. Kiko Miyasato sat down with The Dâs co-owner and CEO to discuss his latest endeavor.
Q: What does âThe Dâ stand for?
A: When you say youâre from Detroit, you say youâre âfrom the D.â Everybody from that area says that. The fact that weâre downtown and this is the year of downtown, it kind of fit, too. People also say theyâre going to come down to Dâs (Derekâs) place. Thatâs what a lot of people call me; itâs just evolved that way.
Q: What made you invest in downtown right now?
A: I think when you look at the underlying aspect of what downtown is, all the stars are aligned to have a good rejuvenation. âŚ With The Smith Center, City Hall, Fremont East, even within the casinos. Youâre seeing new bars opening up. I think youâre starting to see a surge of capital being employed and that always bodes well.
Q: What are some of the new changes weâre going to see at The D?
A: Every hotel room on 31 stories will be completely renovated. Weâll have our outside bar with an outside escalator, a moving mechanical device. We hired a designer from Cirque du Soleil to help design this outside bar; itâs going to be really cool. Lots of video âŚ a lot of moving partsâitâs going to be pretty slick. Inside, we renovated both floors of the casino.
Q: Whatâs the new vibe, the new character of The D?
A: Weâre going to have two really separate and distinct areas. The first floor is going to be a lot of LED, a lot of new machines, loud music, dancing dealers throughout the floor. The second floor is going to be more retro and themed around vintage Las Vegas, more neon, coin slot machines.
Q: What qualities do you need to own and operate a casino?
A: You need to have a lot of energy and you need to have a lot of passionâand I can say those two things I donât lack.
Q: What do you love about this city?
A: Thereâs this certain entrepreneurial spirit here. This is a great state to do things in, and itâs a great city to be able to do things in, too. It attracts a lot of people with the same (entrepreneurial) quality.