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Where the Grass Is Greener

Green Valley Ranch cast the mold for local casinos when it opened 15 years ago

In December 2001, Las Vegas’ gaming industry needed good news. The city was in the trough of the post-9/11 recession, with visitation and construction plummeting and the future uncertain. This wasn’t the best time to open a casino, but Green Valley Ranch had an auspicious debut, and it has not looked back since.

GVR followed a string of Station Casinos rollouts in the 1990s, including Boulder Station (1994), Barley’s (1996) and Sunset Station (1997), and acquisitions: Texas Station (1995), Wild Wild West (1998), Santa Fe and Fiesta Rancho (1999), and The Reserve (now Fiesta Henderson, 2001).

The $300 million property, located on South Green Valley Parkway just off the 215 Beltway in the fashionable Green Valley Ranch neighborhood, was promoted as “the crown jewel of the Green Valley master plan,” with a pedestrian retail and residential component, The District. The casino itself was a conscious step up from its forebears; in an effort to match the sophistication of the neighborhood, Green Valley Ranch was given an elegant Tuscan ranch house feel on the inside and a reserved Mediterranean façade. Unlike other Station casinos, GVR did not boast a tower; its initial 201 rooms were housed in a low-slung structure that did not intrude on its surroundings.

The resort opened with a bang—literally—on December 18, with a gigantic fireworks show at its pool area just before the official 9:30 p.m. unveiling of the casino. Then Station Casinos president Lorenzo Fertitta kicked the gambling off with Rande Gerber, Cindy Crawford, Chris O’Donnell and Christian Slater at a blackjack table.

The Henderson resort, developed jointly by Station Casinos and GCR Gaming, a company owned by the Greenspun family (the “Green” in Green Valley), was the first upscale property for Station, which had built its reputation on convenient, unpretentious gambling halls geared toward locals. Unlike earlier Station offerings, Green Valley had a 10,000-square-foot European day spa. More tried-and-true amenities included a 10-screen Regal Cinema, a 4,200-square-foot arcade and a casino-level food court. Restaurants included a Border Grill, Original Pancake House, Il Fornaio and Trophy’s Sports Bar.

The casino debuted with 53 tables and 2,500 slot machines, most of which used the now-standard ticket-in, ticket-out payment system. In late 2001, however, that technology was far from proven, leading to some anxiety before the launch. In the end, however, the machines worked fine. “It was the smoothest opening I ever had,” says slot supervisor Mike Gausling, a veteran of several.

From the start, Green Valley Ranch was geared to two markets: frequent local visitors and tourists.

Despite the rocky economic outlook surrounding its debut, Green Valley Ranch prospered from the beginning. Even before it opened, most of the guest rooms were booked through February of the following year; a $30 million, 200-room expansion was planned even before the fireworks went off. That morphed into a $115 million, 296-room project that, in 2005, more than doubled its convention space, added a 24-hour café and upgraded the spa.

The following year, a 1,200-space parking garage and a race and sports book came online, joined by expanded casino and convention space and two new restaurants, Tides Seafood & Sushi Bar and Turf Grill. In early 2007, even more casino space and a new lounge/entertainment venue opened. A new bingo room in 2013 and several new restaurants in the last year, including Mexican eatery Borracha Mexican Cantina and two Tony Gemignani pizza joints, have been among the changes that have kept the resort current.

Station Casinos kept Green Valley Ranch through the company’s 2009 bankruptcy, although in the ensuing restructuring, the Greenspun family’s stake was reduced to a licensing fee for the continued use of the Green Valley Ranch name. Taken private in 2007, Station went public again earlier this year as Red Rock Resorts.

Green Valley Ranch was, when it opened, the most expensive locals casino in Las Vegas history, and it has been a model for much of Red Rock’s subsequent growth, including the Red Rock casino and tribal gaming projects in California and Michigan. From the start, it was geared to two markets: frequent local visitors and tourists. Its closeness to the Las Vegas Strip made it an option for those who came to Las Vegas but wanted something between the bustle of the Strip and the distance of Lake Las Vegas.

The dual marketing of Green Valley Ranch was ahead of the curve, and not just in Las Vegas. As gambling has proliferated throughout America, slots alone are no longer a draw. Newer properties, looking to differentiate themselves from their competitors, are increasingly embracing the convenient, upscale amenities that GVR pioneered back in 2001.

The latest milestone reflects not just another year for the only Henderson casino to host its own reality-TV show (2004-05’s American Casino), but a confirmation of the soundness of the underlying concept. Green Valley Ranch might be most visited by those close to it, but its influence is felt thousands of miles away.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.