Real Estate Developer Sees a Hidden Gem in a Historic Casino

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

On shelves behind the desk of real estate developer Joe DeSimone Jr. stand the exquisite attention to detail found in George F. Will’s Men at Work, the soaring inspiration provided by a quote from NFL legend Vince Lombardi and conservative theories espoused by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged.

How much DeSimone might lean on these three influences as he grows into his role as the new owner of Railroad Pass hotel-casino—a fixture on U.S. 93-95 between Henderson proper and Boulder City since 1931—is anyone’s guess. This much is certain: In the nation’s oldest continuously operating casino, which he acquired from MGM Resorts International earlier this year, DeSimone, 48, saw an opportunity to diversify his portfolio. After founding First Federal Realty in 1996 and completing one apartment building and five professional office complexes, the leap into the gaming industry represents more of a professional progression than a personal passion for the Long Island, N.Y., native.

Among DeSimone’s first tasks was a fresh coat of exterior paint and a new roof for Railroad Pass, which houses 320 slot machines, 120 rooms, a William Hill-operated sportsbook, a buffet, steakhouse and café. (DeSimone owns the property, but has yet to complete the regulatory process to become the licensed operator; he anticipates clearing that final hurdle during a Nevada Gaming Commission hearing July 23.) One thing guests won’t see is his name on the property or on his favorite dish on the café’s menu. “My ego doesn’t allow for that,” he says.

The cosmetic enhancements aside, DeSimone, who moved to Henderson in 1991, isn’t planning any kind of mass overhaul of Railroad Pass. For now, he just wants to maximize its potential in ways his predecessors could not. “[Railroad Pass] does well,” he says. “But there are so many revenue centers and cost-efficiencies that can be implemented in a property like this that might have been overlooked by the previous owners because they had bigger and more important things to look at.”

For instance, on one of his first visits after taking possession, DeSimone discovered the bar in the sportsbook did not take debit or credit cards. “There are countless opportunities to improve the experience for the customers, add customers and make sure we’re running as efficiently as possible.”

DeSimone is also committed to improving the experience for his workforce. In accordance with the purchase agreement with MGM—which had owned the property since 2005—he retained all 200-plus employees. He says he sensed relief when those employees were told a local independent businessman was now signing their paychecks and planning to reinvest. To that latter point: DeSimone, who purchased 40 acres adjacent to the developed 20-acre property, is studying whether to add a travel center to better accommodate the estimated 40-50 truckers who stop there nightly on the trek to and from Arizona. Beyond that, he intends to retain Railroad Pass’ intimate character and its appeal to Boulder City residents, while attracting more Henderson residents as the Boulder City bypass and Interstate 11 are developed.

“The travel experience for people from Boulder City doesn’t change [with the bypass]; the travel experience for people from Henderson only changes to the extent they can’t make an immediate left-hand turn into our property where the stoplight [currently] is,” he says. “A lot of prospective purchasers might have had some concerns as it relates to that; I have a lot of optimism as it relates to that.”

Actually, DeSimone has a lot of optimism about everything. Even though his first foray into hospitality and gaming has come with a steep learning curve, he’s fully embracing the experience when others might be overwhelmed: “It’s a fun adventure. And it’s a perfect property to buy for your first casino.”

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