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If you used to gamble at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino near Summerlin back when it opened in 2000, you might recognize some faces a little further north in Mesquite, Nevada.

The Casablanca Resort-Casino-Golf-Spa and Virgin River Hotel/Casino/Bingo, both owned by Mesquite Gaming, are basically the Suncoast North these days.

“Suncoast Way North,” Chris Lazzara, the vice president of marketing and advertising for Mesquite Gaming, said laughing.

Lazzara, who was a computer-science major at UNLV before deciding “these electrical engineering classes are hard” and opting for a career in the casino business, was the marketing director at Suncoast.

His current boss, Mesquite Gaming CEO Anthony Toti, was the casino manager back when Suncoast opened. Mesquite’s food director, slot director, chief of security, sales VP and catering director are also all former Suncoast employees.

“Anthony basically got the band back together out in Mesquite,” Lazzara said.

You’ve probably seen the TV commercials for Casablanca proclaiming it’s “like Vegas used to be.”

Lazzara admitted that’s “kind of tongue in cheek because it’s exactly how we were (at Suncoast) in 2000.”

“We all work very well together,” he said. “We’re definitely building something here.”

Asked if being a former Suncoast employee is a requirement to get hired, Lazzara said with a smile, “No… but it helps.”

Mesquite Gaming is in the process of upgrading facilities at Casablanca and Virgin River after taking over following the bankruptcy of former owner Randy Black.

The properties are located off Interstate 15, about 90 miles from Las Vegas and near the borders of both Arizona and Utah.

In fact, eight holes of the Palms Golf Course, one of two courses in the area owned by Mesquite Gaming, are played in Arizona. The round starts in Nevada, goes into Arizona and then finishes up back in Nevada.

The most popular promotion currently going these days includes a room for one night plus one round of golf (or a spa package) for $99.

Mesquite has transformed over the years from a truck stop surrounded by farms and dairies into a popular vacation layover and retirement home. The city’s population peaks at around 25,000.

“A lot of snowbirds,” Lazzara said. “As soon as the temperature gets above 100, you can cut that population in half.”

During those hot summer months, the casinos rely more on visitors from other western states, many of whom might be headed to California or possibly an attraction such as Zion National Park in Utah.

The hope is that the city’s new regime will start promoting itself more.

“Low crime, clean air,” Lazzara said. “You don’t have to get a smog check. You’re in a rural city. It’s not far from Vegas. It’s really close to St. George (Utah).”

The hotel rooms recently were improved with new beds and TVs while new carpeting and paint jobs are next on the agenda.

Shortly after Toti, Michael Gaughan (owner of South Point Casino) and Newport Global Advisors LP, a Texas-based investment company, got involved in the wake of Black Gaming’s financial problems, the decision was made to close the Oasis Casino, which was also owned by the group.

Four casino/hotels, including the rival Eureka Resort, were simply deemed to be one too many for the area to support.

That Oasis land still needs to be re-developed.

Among the possibilities are a water park or additional convention space, but that’s all still in an exploratory stage, according to Lazzara.

In addition to two main golf tournaments (the Mesquite Amateur and Nevada Open), Mesquite Gaming’s properties feature several other annual events, from amateur MMA bouts to car shows and a balloon festival.

The next major one is a barbecue competition May 4-8 at Casablanca called the “Smokin Hot Mesquite Days BBQ Championship” with $40,000 awarded in cash and prizes.

Lazzara, meanwhile, strongly recommends the fine-dining restaurant, Katherine’s, at Casablanca, which has “USDA prime” steaks flown in from a Chicago stockyard, along with stone crabs twice a week from Florida.

The Casablanca resort primarily targets the Las Vegas and southern Utah markets, while Virgin River is more of a locals casino and a popular stop for travelers going camping, fishing or hunting because they can park their trailer/boat right outside their room.

Dave Dye is a former sportswriter for the Detroit News and He has covered six Stanley Cup Finals, five Final Fours, three NBA Finals, three Rose Bowls and one World Series. Email: [email protected].

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