A ‘Crystal’ clear vision of downtown

Aug 24, 2004 6:26 AM

If the Las Vegas gaming world has a Renaissance man, it might well be Barrick Corporation’s man on the go, Stephen Crystal. At different stages in his life, Crystal — the co-founder, chairman and general counsel of the Barrick Gaming Corporation — has been a state legislator, then a topsider in a presidential campaign, an attorney at a prestigious law firm and a leading figure in Midwestern redevelopment projects.

Today the 38-year-old wunderkind finds himself holding the future of downtown Las Vegas in his hands, perhaps to a greater extent than anybody not working in city hall. The Barrick Corporation recently took control of four casinos and a number of parcels of land in downtown Las Vegas, and how the company develops or expands those properties will tell a lot about the viability of the downtown area.

Crystal first came to public attention in New Hampshire where he was elected to the state legislature at the age of 20 while he was still a student at Dartmouth College. During the political phase of his life, when "it was about getting involved," he became involved enough to wind up managing Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign in Tennessee.

The phase passed and today Crystal says "I am not an ideologue" and, in fact, "I am not very political." But as he looks back at his efforts in the political arena, he gives thanks for the range of people he met while he was there, and for the experience it gave him in dealing with the media.

A few years later, working as an associate in the renowned law firm of Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis, he caught a break. When an unrecognized Dave Barrick first walked into the offices of the law firm, he was wearing casual clothes and the kind of dirtied boots hunters wear after they’ve been out in the woods.

A senior partner who Crystal describes as being a "stuffed shirt, uppity type," took a quick disdainful look at the stranger in the outer office and decided to pass him on to Crystal. The young associate attorney ended up convincing Barrick that he had the skills that the corporation needed.

After joining Barrick in 1993, he played a key role in the negotiations and management of a joint venture with Station Casinos, its $450 million riverboat/hotel/entertainment complex in Kansas City.

Crystal moved to Washington, D.C., where he represented Boomtown casinos and lobbied municipalities. Part of his responsibilities in those days was to ameliorate the economic damage to mom and pop type businesses in downtown core areas by super size retailers who would set up their megastores on the outskirts of town. He says "he helped the little guys" and the downtown areas of some Midwestern cities by taking "tired properties" and rejuvenating them. "I think we were wearing the white hats," he said.

Crystal, who estimates that he spends 200 days a year on the road, met the woman he would marry in law school. They now have three children ages 4, 6, and 8. He attributes his success in life to "hard work and having good balance. I am very results oriented. I live to solve problems."

He says he use to play a lot of golf and do some hunting and fishing. In a hobby that is not surprising for a Renaissance man, Crystal also collects contemporary art. "Hopefully it will be a good investment some day," he said.

He said that his principle concern since Barrack bought the four downtown casinos from Jackie Gaughan has been the 200 employees coming into a new situation. "For the foreseeable future we are going to have a great impact" on their lives.

The second thing is the impact the Barrick Corporation will have on the future of Las Vegas. "For me, it’s been a tremendously humbling experience. The only thing that I worry about is the level of cooperation among the downtown owners. They have a common objective (keeping the downtown area alive and inviting). I think there’s a lot of energy and you want to be sure that continues," he said.

He added that in another era there was "more focus on the personalities than the business" among the downtown casino owners. He said that while the interplay between the casino owners is fine, "at the end of the day, you need to focus on the business end," he said.