Winds of change swirling at Sahara

Jul 10, 2007 5:50 AM

The future look of the Sahara will slip into sharper focus this week as Las Vegan Larry Woolf and his Navegante Group appear before Nevada licensing officials for approval as operators of the aging resort’s casino.

Woolf’s Navegante will only operate the casino at the Sahara, which is being bought by a private group led by SBE Entertainment Group and Stockbridge Real Estate Funds.

SBE is led by the youngish (about 31) Sam Nazarian, who has earned an early reputation over the last several years as the developer of hip and cool nightclubs of the sort frequented by the likes of Paris and Lindsey.

Unofficial sources familiar with plans for the Sahara say Nazarian expects to invest "hundreds of millions" on the kind of extreme make-over necessary to make the 55-year-old Sahara a 21st century kind of success

What Nazarian appears to bring to this deal, besides big ambition, is a knack for good timing and a sense of design.

Let’s talk about the latter first. Renowned architect and designer Philippe Starck, whose creations attract attention wherever they are seen, has reportedly agreed to bring his talents to the make-over at the Sahara. I hear that this is the first time Starck has worked in Las Vegas.

Starck has been involved with the design of nightclub, restaurant and hotel interiors from Paris to Miami and LA. He’s already been involved in some of SBE’s projects in the LA area, specifically the Katsuya in Brentwood.

His approach to design has been described as "intelligent, subversive and always interesting. His objects surprise and delight even as they transgress boundaries." If he can live up to the hype, wow!

As for Nazarian’s timing in buying the Sahara, it couldn’t be any better, making the announcement when he did in March just before MGM Mirage and Sol Kerzner announced their agreement to get together on the property opposite the Sahara — a joint venture that will be on the scale of MGM’s CityCenter or Boyd Gaming’s Echelon Place.

SBE’s announcement of plans to buy the Sahara preceded by just a few weeks the announcement that Fontainebleau Resorts is getting a $250 million infusion from Australia’s James Packer who is already in the Pacific Rim casino business from Australia to Macau.

If plans for creating a Las Vegas version of the famed Miami Beach resort had fallen off the local radar, the project seems very much on track now. And Nazarian’s right there in the middle of some of the hottest development action on the Las Vegas Strip.

There was no indication as of several days ago that the Sahara will do anything other than operate as-is for the time being, but Nazarian and partners can probably see the opportunity to turn a quick, healthy profit by reselling the property, if they are so inclined.

Good timing creates those kinds of options.

Drache back in the World Series

Eric Drache will be getting his first close-up look in nearly 20 years at the World Series of Poker main event’s final table next week when ESPN launches its pay per view coverage of the world’s biggest and best-known live poker tournament.

Drache was director of the World Series for more than a dozen years, a period of time when the Series was still being held at the Binion family’s Horseshoe. He left the World Series in 1988. Fast forward to 2007 and he and partner Mori Eskandani have earned sturdy reputations as two of the most successful producers of televised poker events.

ESPN recruited the pair to bring their expertise to the pay per view programming that was sold for the first time a year ago.

With something close to 6,000 players in the championship event this year, there is no better time to remember that it was during Drache’s tenure as World Series director, that the number of players in the main event passed 100 for the first time.

Buried in those ground leases!

The payments for ground leases under the Binion’s Gambling Hall on Fremont Street amount to about $500,000 a month. This includes land under one or more of the two parking garages and the coffee shop. The expense associated with these leases gets a lot of attention whenever the sale of the 56-year-old hotel and casino is discussed.