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Barrick boss eyes downtown resurgence

Jun 15, 2004 5:53 AM

The big deal, explains Phil Flaherty, Barrick Gaming’s chief operating officer, is the four or five city blocks ripe for development in downtown Las Vegas.

It’s part of the 35-acre, four-casino/two-motel package that Barrick just bought for $82 million. That includes all of Jackie Gaughan’s hotels, casinos, motels and some fallow lands. Eventually, Barrick will exercise the option it has on Gaughan’s El Cortez.

Gaughan, on the road to being a nonagenarian, built his downtown empire over the decades following World War II. He still lives — and presides — at his El Cortez.

What made the deal unusual was Barrick’s pitch made a couple of months ago to the Nevada Gaming Commission by its president, Stephen Crystal. He has a long history of redeveloping downtowns in other states. And CEO/President D.W. Barrick was a consultant and investor in Casino Magic’s $150 million jump into the Mississippi riverboat market.

"There are tremendous table game opportunities downtown," COO Flaherty explained last week. "Downtown isn’t dead or dying."

He should know. He’s watched downtown evolve since he attended Rancho High School, later earning an accounting degree at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Barrick’s buyout of the Gaughan properties has "fascinating" opportunities, Flaherty adds. "We are the only operator that can expand. The other (downtown) properties are all landlocked."

Additionally, he said, the 35 acres acquired in the buyout involve no other landowners — far different, say, from the situation at some older Fremont Street hotel-casinos.

"With 35 downtown acres," Flaherty points out, "Barrick Gaming can expand in any number of directions." The hotel tower at the Las Vegas Club, for instance, "was originally designed for 10 or 15" more stories.

After college, Flaherty started work at the Silver Slipper in 1981 when it was part of Howard Hughes’ Summa Corp. He took over as president of the Desert Inn "around ’95, after Burton Cohen."

He works in a cluttered office at the Plaza while new offices are being rehabbed — and no, they will not have a view of the new Internal Revenue Service building being built up near the Bonanza underpass. Some of Barrick Gaming’s offices are still on Rancho Drive, others are in the Plaza and the Las Vegas Club.

The Plaza’s slots are 80 percent ticket in-ticket out, Flaherty says. At the Las Vegas Club, they’re 45 percent converted. As the conversion to cashless continues, he says, the payroll on counting coins "will be shifted back to customer service."

There’s not much of a marketing budget, Flaherty adds. "We are creating an aura of activity without a lot of advertising."

How do you gain publicity? Barrick is sponsoring drag races. The Shrine Circus will be held on the Plaza parking lot this fall. When the Hard Rock Hotel-Casino backed out of a television special, Barrick picked up the pieces for its downtown properties. And FOX Sports TV is doing an eight-hour series "on our poker tournament," Flaherty said.

"Did you know," he asks, "there are 14,000 web sites devoted to arm wrestling? ESPN is taping an arm-wrestling contest here" for re-broadcast. Barrick Gaming has signed Dick Clark to have his show here.

There are only two downtown showrooms, he says, and two lounge shows — "at the Plaza and the (Golden) Nugget."

Topping Barrick’s to-do list: another tower on the south end of the Plaza property; replacing the baseball-themed facade on the Las Vegas Club; building walkways over Main Street to link the Plaza and Las Vegas Club; another walkway to provide access (later) over the Union Pacific railroad tracks to connect the Plaza and the 61-acre railroad property.

Barrick Gaming will also convert the atmosphere at the Las Vegas Club "to Coyote Ugly meets Beverly Hills," Flaherty says, while creating "a much higher end hotel experience, a small exclusive club atmosphere."

And five years from now?

"We will have added 3,000 rooms downtown," Flaherty says. "We will have acquired three or four non-restricted licenses downtown."

And those four or five city blocks down by the Western Hotel, east of the Fremont Street Experience canopy?

With Southern Nevada’s rapidly growing Hispanic influx, Barrick Gaming plans to tap that market for its development.

Specifically, it’s been reported that Barrick will remodel and expand the Western Hotel and Casino (located at Fremont and Ninth Street) into an all-Hispanic resort and casino.

And for downtown, the beat goes on. Ole!