With his outsize expansion plans, swashbuckling Downtown casino boss Derek Stevens bids to join the roster of legendary Fremont Street characters
Derek Stevens is giving away his car.
Okay, it’s not his car, the white Shelby GT350 Mustang with the “Longbar” license plate parked outside the Third Street Stage on Fremont Street. He leans in conspiratorially and whispers, “I paid a lot of money for that car.” It’s the end of a seven-month “Win Derek’s Car” promotion at The D. You can tell because that’s one of the eight patches on Stevens’ black blazer with gold brocade sleeves, all of them promoting his casino, or the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center, or Banksy’s Celebrity Golf Tournament, the Vegas Internet Mafia Family Picnic or Stevens’ various social media handles.
There are about 30 people onstage, winners of monthly drawings for slot players. There are about another hundred in the crowd, some friends and family, some just drawn by a thing on a stage. The people onstage all get a box, but only one will contain the key that starts the Mustang. The rest get a D-branded flashlight. If qualifying players had to book another couple nights at The D for a return trip to have a shot at the car, so much the better.
While each contestant is called to pick out their box, Stevens, standing offstage amid a circle of casino executives, peels off a few dollars from a gangster roll to have one of his subordinates run for water. One Barbara Alexander of Indiana turned out to be the Shelby’s key-master, and Stevens cuts through the mob to meet her. She’s shaking, but he soothes her enough that she’s able to drive across a crowded Fremont Street with a representative from the casino. After a few minutes, it’s upstairs to a private party for participants in the golf invitational. Stevens marches to the back of the room, ingratiating himself into circles the same way every time: When he wants to squeeze in, he pats the back of the guy on his left while turning to shake hands with the guy on his right.
There aren’t many women in the room, but the ones who are there rush to Stevens for selfies, for shots of the blazer, and, in one case, for a pic with her mouth near Stevens’ nether regions, straight out of Middle Aged Ladies Gone Moderately Wild and clearly making him uncomfortable.
That discomfort isn’t an aw-shucks put-on. While people might flock to a casino owner for any number of reasons — outré social media personality and flashy sartorial choices among them — it was a mode Stevens had to learn to adjust to.
“It’s funny, to have been with him when he very first showed up, and to hang out with him now nine years down the road,” Michael Storm says. Storm, now the general manager of Hooters Casino Hotel, worked for Stevens for eight years. “He’s become a big part of Downtown. It’s difficult to realize you are that person when you just think of yourself like anybody else, and I think he does.”
Stevens works his way through four circles of golfers in about five minutes, just the way he likes it. There’s a slot tournament he has to host and a live podcast taping to get to and drinks to be had with customers at the Longbar. It’s another night at The D. In three years or so, when he opens the first brand-new casino on Fremont in decades, you wonder how he’ll be able to split his time.
‘DEMOLISH THE WHOLE BLOCK’
Bugsy Siegel came to Las Vegas because of the mob’s horse-racing wire. Benny Binion came fleeing a violent Dallas turf war. Stevens came because of debt. Not as exciting, as founding mythologies go, but it does have the advantage of being legal.
In 1993, Stevens assumed control of the auto-parts-manufacturing business his grandfather had started in Warren, Michigan, in 1912. He was 26, fresh from the Wayne State MBA program, and found himself running the company after the CEO suddenly stepped down. Stevens accepted the job on an interim basis. After 10 years, he finally asked to have that dropped from his title. One of his responsibilities was managing the business’ investments, and buying up debt was one of the areas Stevens liked to play in.
The Riviera became an attractive option not only because of its financial difficulties or because Stevens dug Nevada’s lack of state income tax, but because the lessons of the auto industry post-9/11 were fresh in his mind. The industry took a hit. The flow of cars rolling off Detroit’s assembly lines slowed to a trickle, and no foreign companies were buying his parts — sometimes by protectionist law.
“I thought the rate of return was pretty good considering I thought the risk was low,” he says of the Riviera. “Not for the operating business. I had no confidence in the operating business making it, but on the debt, it was secured by 26 acres. Then, after Riviera went bankrupt in 2010, all the debt-holders ended up getting equity in it.”
Stevens was the one who advocated shutting down the Riviera down to the rest of the board. The building’s bones, he said, were beyond repair. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority would eventually voice its agreement with dynamite.
Meanwhile, by 2006, Stevens and his brother Greg had taken control of the Golden Gate, their foothold in Downtown, and set about renovating it. This time, the bones were good. They added Fitzgerald’s in 2011 and turned it into The D within a year.
The facelift at The D took it from dreary grind joint to a place that felt more in line with modern Vegas. Just like at the Golden Gate, Stevens and his small crew shot from the hip, and it paid off.
“I remember the very first financial meeting I had with Derek,” Storm says. “He said, ‘The one thing I need to tell you is we’re going to eliminate all of the red tape. We will never be competitive if it takes us six months to make a decision.’ I don’t know if we were just lucky or if Derek is a genius, but we had really positive results near across the board.”
Stevens bought the Las Vegas Club in August 2015, and this year added to his collection with La Bayou, Girls of Glitter Gulch and Mermaids. When Stevens came to Fremont Street, there were eight major properties under the canopy, including the Plaza. Stevens now controls three of them. Or, more precisely, he will, after his plans for the block on the east side of Fremont, between Main and First streets, come to fruition. On that, Stevens is unequivocal about the shape his vision is taking.
“I’m going to demolish everything,” he says. “It’s going to be one big block. There was a lot of lead in [the Las Vegas Club] and a lot of asbestos. We were able to clean the building because we knew it was going to be a lot less expensive when you have a clean building to [demolish]. I limited our work to that because I felt there was a potential of a much bigger play, and that was to try to talk to [Granite Gaming Group CEO] Steve Burnstine and see if we could buy the Glitter Gulch and Mermaids. It opens up a whole city block. After we bought Vegas Club in August ’15, we did not spend any money on architectural drawings. The closest we had was me and my brother sketching away.”
They’re in a process of dealing with entitlement issues surrounding the alleys behind the Glitter Gulch and Mermaids parcels. After that, Stevens ballparks another six to eight months of demolition and 18 months to build the new resort, the name of which he hasn’t released yet. An opening date of 2019 isn’t off the table, though 2020 might be more realistic.
‘STEVE WYNN FANBOY’
The same night he gave away the car, he let a group of Vegas-philes say goodbye to an old friend. The Vegas Internet Mafia Family Picnic is an annual gathering of Vegas enthusiasts, organized by a confederation of Vegas websites and podcasts. It’s not the kind of event Caesars Palace would be clamoring to land, but Stevens has hosted it since 2013. At the end of the night, the event sent its people on a scavenger hunt to find the location of the after-party. Stevens’ gift to the group was to let them into the shuttered Glitter Gulch, operating that night as the Dark Bar. Which was appropriate, as the lights were already off.
It was a populist gesture, the kind Stevens specializes in, but it was also a rare moment of nostalgia. Stevens was unmoved by the Riviera’s history when he suggested it be shuttered. La Bayou was the site of the Northern Club, awarded the first gaming license in Las Vegas in 1931. It was torn down over the course of a couple of days. Mermaids opened in 1956 as the Silver Palace, and it soon will meet the same fate. Yet Stevens isn’t indifferent to Las Vegas history. He’s studied the guys who came before him, especially the gunslingers who were out there running things on their own wits and guts — especially Steve Wynn.
“I love reading stories about Bill Boyd and Benny Binion and Steve Wynn. You could call me a Steve Wynn fanboy,” he says. “It’s important to learn from what he did, but it’s also important to be realistic about the era and the times. I can’t deny I’ve had a few nights wishing I was younger and I ran into Michael Milken before there was anything called junk bonds.”
Wynn got his start in Downtown, at the Nugget, before methodically expanding his empire and taking enough calculated risks to put himself at the top of the Las Vegas food chain by being both unsparingly unsentimental — RIP, Dunes and Desert Inn — yet savvy enough to stay ahead of his customers, delivering what they want before they know they want it. He had a little showman in him, too. He could even play man of the people from time to time. It’s hard to imagine Jim Murren or Sheldon Adelson riding Slotzilla.
But it’s just as hard to imagine Wynn pressing the flesh with the low-rollers at the Longbar. Stevens grafted Wynn’s lessons to his hands-on, charismatic, freewheeling style — just like his forebears who hung their names in neon all over the valley.
When he goes back to Detroit, Stevens trades the brocade blazers for a conservative blue suit. But if you really want to see the yin and yang of the Las Vegas casino operator in play, consider The D’s logo, two pinup legs thrust into the air with a pair of red platform heels crowning what is, almost certainly, Quentin Tarantino’s favorite piece of casino marketing.
When the Stevens brothers took over Fitzgerald’s, the building’s windows were a mess. They were mismatched, and many were broken. It was going to cost $7 million to replace them, and Derek Stevens balked. Greg suggested they wrap the building. Derek didn’t even know what that meant, but when he found out about how much it would save in repairs and utilities, he agreed. They sat around a steakhouse table and kicked around ideas about how to feature their dancing dealers before settling on the legs.
“That was about it,” Derek Stevens says. “There was no big focus group or anything. We just said, ‘Oh, let’s try that.’ In a big corporation if you came up with an idea to put legs with red shoes up the whole side of a building, there would probably be a lot of meetings.”