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Juiceman wants Reno casino

Feb 11, 2003 7:57 AM

Two Reno casino operators say business is suffering in Northern Nevada. But that’s not stopping one entrepreneur from pitching an idea for a new gambling hall.

Attorney Harvey Whittemore has an option to buy the Old Reno Casino downtown. The tiny gambling hall is undistinguished except for the fact that it holds a grandfathered non-restricted gaming license.

Whittemore, a well-heeled wheeler-dealer and lobbyist par excellence, is proposing to buy the Old Reno and sell the property to the city for $1. In exchange, he would retain the non-restricted gaming license and pledge to build a new casino elsewhere in town.

Not surprisingly, Reno’s city fathers are excited by the prospect. And anxious observers say a deal can’t be consummated too soon.

"Reno has stymied growth for too long and it’s coming back to haunt them,’’ said one industry analyst. "You know things are pretty bad when Station Casinos is holding a job fair downtown — for jobs in Thunder Valley [Calif.].’’

Bill Thornton, chief financial officer of the new Golden Phoenix (formerly the Reno Hilton), told the Gaming Control Board last week that the property was "struggling."

"The December numbers were not nearly what we expected, but January is on target,’’ he said.

  But even "on target" isn’t saying much. The Golden Phoenix’s average daily room rate is running just $33 and occupancy is a paltry 10 percent midweek.

Out at Boomtown, general manager and vice president Jack Fisher acknowledged that business is "suffering a little.’’

To trim costs, Pinnacle Gaming, owner of the I-80 hotel-casino and truck stop, has converted Boomtown Inc. to a limited liability corporation called PNK (Reno) LLC.

Jack Godfrey, senior vice president and legal counsel for Pinnacle, noted that the move was a first of its kind for a publicly traded gaming company. Industry observers speculate that more such transfers may be in the offing if corporations can realize certain tax advantages.

Despite the downward trend lines, Pinnacle is seeking to more that double its line of credit at Boomtown to up to $250 million.

Meantime, Whittemore is also banking on Southern Nevada. He is in the early stages of developing a 12,000-acre master planned community called Coyote Springs north of I-15 near the Lincoln County line.

Touted as a golf course community, Coyote Springs may, ultimately, offer resort-style hotel-casinos.