The past few weeks have offered a good perspective on the dance between old Vegas, new Vegas and new old Vegas that characterizes our times. In particular, two incidents involving Downtown casino owner Derek Stevens that could only have happened in 2017 show just how far Las Vegas has come and why it’s important not to lose sight of its past.
The first, and most obvious, is the removal of Vegas Vickie. The neon cowgirl was created at the behest of Bob Stupak in 1980, and since then she’s stood guard over the property that, most recently, was Girls of Glitter Gulch. Vickie came down because Derek and Greg Stevens, owners of The D and Golden Gate casinos, bought the block that includes the former Mermaids, Glitter Gulch, Las Vegas Club and other businesses. They are planning a major round of demolition prior to building a new hotel-casino on the site.
It might take a minute to fully digest the last sentence. Someone is building a new casino on Fremont Street. Five years ago, let alone 10, that would have been unthinkable. But Stevens has found a way to not only make a go of the Golden Gate and The D (the former Sundance Hotel and Fitzgeralds), but to invest in the kind of ground-up new resort Downtown hasn’t seen for decades.
“She came from Bob Stupak, a legendary guy in Las Vegas history. The connection to him made me want to protect her even more.” — Derek Stevens on Vegas Vickie sign
The link pushing this new Vegas development into new old Vegas territory is Stevens’ commitment to preserving the venerable lady of Fremont. “I think that Vegas Vickie over the few decades has become iconic,” Stevens says. “I thought she was a rather important symbol of Downtown, so I wanted to make sure that we protected something from the past while we’re building something new.”
But there’s more. “She came from Bob Stupak, a legendary guy in Las Vegas history,” Stevens adds. “The connection to him made me want to protect her even more.”
The other Stevens throwback is a return to old-school Downtown casino community involvement. Certainly modern casino corporations donate more to volunteer organizations today on a dollar basis than the owners of the past, but it doesn’t have the same small-town feeling as, for example, Jackie Gaughan’s personal generosity to organizations, from Bishop Gorman High School to the Boys and Girls Club.
Stevens took a page out of Jackie’s book (Gaughan was an owner of the Las Vegas Club at one point) by donating $100,000 to the Golden Knights Foundation, which will promote youth hockey across the Valley. These hometown heroics were inspired by Stevens’ own hometown. “I got to see two NHL owners build up youth hockey in Detroit. It’s a way to build future fans. It’s also great to see the impact of youth sports on the community,” he says. “We’ve had a great run of baseball players coming out of Las Vegas the past few years—Joey Gallo, Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant. Maybe 10 or 12 years down the road we’ll be seeing the same thing on the ice.”
At the same time as the youth hockey initiative, Stevens and the Golden Knights announced that The D will be the official “host” of the NHL expansion team, holding fan festivals and otherwise providing a Downtown home for hockey lovers. At first it seems a curious move for a casino located miles from the Knights’ rink in the T-Mobile Arena. But for Stevens, it makes perfect sense.
“For a while I lived in an apartment building connected to Joe Louis Arena,” he explains, “and I got to live the impact hockey had on Detroit, how it galvanized the team. It’s what you saw last week in Nashville—the Predators making the finals was a community event. The Vegas Golden Knights will galvanize this community. I can envision all of Fremont Street turning into a giant watch party when the Knights make the playoffs.”
It took a major corporation, MGM Resorts International, to build the arena that lured the Knights to Vegas, and the role that it and similar companies played in creating new Vegas is undeniable. But it takes an operator with Stevens’ passion and commitment to connect this latest incarnation of Sin City to the community.
Wherever Vegas Vickie ultimately ends up, and however long it takes the Golden Knights to hoist a Stanley Cup or Las Vegas youth hockey players to light up prospect boards, we should remember that, back in 2017, Derek Stevens saw a little of the future—and it looked, in some ways, like the past.