Seven Questions for Tim Brooks, Emerald Island Casino Owner

The owner of Nevada’s only all-penny casino on surviving a decade, the allure of downtown Henderson and trusting your gut instinct

Photo by Anthony Mair

Photo by Anthony Mair

Recipe for small-business success: Take over a failed casino—one that’s been vacant for three years—in a stagnant section of downtown Henderson. Rebrand it the Emerald Island (because your mother’s 100 percent Irish), complete with murals of 17th-century Irish village landscapes and faux stonework. Market it as “Nevada’s only all-penny casino.” Then wait for the money to roll in. OK, maybe that’s not the ideal recipe, but it certainly worked for Tim Brooks, who along with his twin brother, Michael, opened the Emerald Island just west of Water Street in 2003.

As it nears its 10th anniversary this month, the 8,500-square-foot casino stands as one of the most popular destinations in downtown Henderson—and a beacon of hope for the area’s future.

You managed Club Fortune casino in Henderson before opening your own place. Why did you make the leap to casino operator, and why did you choose this specific location?

I saw there were a lot of deficiencies in the service that people were receiving in locals casinos, and I knew that we could do a better job just by treating the customers better and giving them more. As for the location, nobody wanted it, and it was a value that we thought we could really turn into something. And it was one of the last—if not the last—nonrestricted gaming licenses that was available in Henderson.

On a scale of one to 10, how confident were you when you opened the doors that you’d make it to your 10-year anniversary?

Ten. I didn’t know any better. Failure never crossed our minds, because we were just too busy trying to make it work. My brother and I have asked ourselves, “Gee, do you think if we knew then what we know now that we would’ve had the guts to do this? Nah!” Ignorance is bliss.

What’s the story behind the Irish landscape murals?

A gentleman named Edwin Leishman walked in one night when we were busy remodeling the casino, getting it ready to open. We didn’t have anything on the walls—we really didn’t know any better—and he said, “I’m a mural artist.” So we hired him, and we left one night at midnight and came back at 8 in the morning and he had a whole wall done, and it looked beautiful.

I hadn’t seen his work. I just took his word. In this business, you’re fed so much information—everything’s data, data, and most of your decisions are, of course, data-driven. But in business in general, your gut instinct is often a good indicator and very rarely lets you down.

How does a small-casino operator survive in the 21st-century Las Vegas Valley?

Just by what we’re doing here: treating our customers well. We know we have a niche, so we let the big guys fight it out while we just go about our business. This is probably the most competitive gaming market in the world—the Henderson locals market. The Henderson guests are very, very loyal, and they’re a good group of people. And when they like you, they tell you what you’re doing wrong and they tell you what you’re doing well. If you listen to them, and they listen to you—that’s how we learned about the penny-[slot] phenomenon.

When you look at the redevelopment of downtown Las Vegas, with the burgeoning Fremont East scene, are you jealous?

No, not at all. I love it, because at some point downtown Las Vegas will out-price itself, and it’ll lead to more business in downtown Henderson.

You recently purchased the Pinnacle Building on Water Street from the city, with plans to turn the vacant first floor into an urban lounge. So is it safe to say you expect downtown Henderson to experience a revival similar to that of downtown Las Vegas?

Henderson’s redevelopment agency fields calls daily from people interested in doing business in downtown Henderson. All it’s going to take is one good large tenant to come in. … Knowing what I know, if I was a developer, I would be salivating at the opportunities that are going to be available or currently are available in the downtown redevelopment district here. If you think about it, where’s the growth of our Valley going to occur? It’s going to come to east Henderson.

But we’re very much invested in downtown Henderson. We’re not going anywhere. We love it here.

What’s the biggest penny jackpot you’ve awarded?

$28,000. It was keno. I was asleep at 4 in the morning when I got the call. Whenever the phone rings at 4 in the morning, it’s either a big jackpot or something has gone horrifically wrong. So I was glad to hear it was a big jackpot.

In the days and weeks after you opened Emerald Island, did you ever have an, “Oh shit, what have we gotten ourselves into?” moment?

Oh yes—of course! Hasn’t everybody? There were days where we’d say, “I hope we have enough customers tonight. Because we have a payroll to meet tomorrow!”

What inspired you to open the place as an all-penny casino?

I had an opportunity to study the market for three years-plus before we opened here, and found out what people in this market were looking for. We sort of instituted penny keno and penny poker, as well as penny reel slots. We were the first one to have a penny progressive on the bar and penny keno. We’re open 24 hours, so we don’t have to take your money in five minutes.

How would you describe your customer-service philosophy, and did you borrow it from anyone?

We didn’t borrow it from anyone. It’s just something that I learned in the restaurant business in Los Angeles for many years—treat people well. In a casino our size, it’s probably easier to provide more of personalized service than a big place. We knew that was our niche, so we get to know our guests. You can walk into other places and not be recognized or acknowledged, but that won’t happen here.

Aside from your own restaurant, where’s the best place to eat on or around Water Street?

There’s more than one to mention. There’s the Rose Garden Chinese restaurant. There’s the classic American Eats on Water Street. There’s Emery’s up the street. There’s the Rainbow Casino across the street—they do a great job with their food. They’re my competitor, but, hey, shout out to the Rainbow. They bring people downtown, too, so God bless ’em.

What kind of perks come with owning a small casino in Henderson? Can you dial up Steve Wynn right now if you wanted to?

I probably could, but he probably wouldn’t take my call [laughs]. Actually, I consider it an honor and a privilege to hold a gaming license in the state of Nevada, and especially in an intimate, competitive gaming market such as Henderson. Are there perks? Sure, there’s perks—for instance, as a major employer in downtown Henderson, I have a voice—but there’s a lot of responsibility that goes with that.

What’s the first question you’d ask Wynn if you were alone in his office with him?

When you went into the business, did you have any doubts about making it? Same question you asked me. And I’m sure his response would be the same as mine. I admire him. He’s a great operator, his properties are super-clean and his employees are probably the best-trained employees in the industry. I’ve been to his properties on several occasions, and I’m always amazed at how beautiful they are and how well his team treats you. If I were to pattern the customer service in my casino after anyone, he would be the one I would look up to.

If you could buy any megaresort on the Strip tomorrow, what would it be?

Circus Circus. I just like the energy.

What would you do to it?

If I told you, I’d have to kill you.