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‘Gate keeper’ of Fremont St.

Dec 7, 2004 5:20 AM

By Lou Filardo

There are certain words that come to mind when describing the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino at 1 Fremont St. Old. Quaint. Old. Small. Old.

There was a time when another word would have come to mind: dead. As in, closed for business forever.

About a decade ago, the Golden Gate seemed to be circling the drain as the megaresorts on the Strip started offering exploding volcanoes pirate ships waging nightly battles.

Mark Brandenburg, president of the Golden Gate, remembers "revenues were beginning to slide" after The Mirage opened and the neighborhood casinos were increasingly becoming competitors for what he describes as the Golden Gate’s "middle market customer base."

The downtown casinos were suffering, and the Golden Gate in particular was looking a little frayed around the edges. A columnist for the Wall Street Journal described the Golden Gate as "a mess, outfitted with orange shag carpeting, Formica furniture and a ratty-looking steel façade dating to the late 1950s."

Brandenburg and his brother, Craig, had bought out their stepfather in 1990, and while the renovation of the tiny, 107-room property helped some, there was still talk among the downtown resort owners of what they needed to do to combat the new attractions on the Strip. "We saw we needed our own volcano," he says.

They considered turning the downtown streets into a waterway to be called Las Venice and then somebody proposed a giant Starship Enterprise. Finally, they settled on the idea of a light show, and Fremont Street was closed to traffic and a canopy containing over two million bulbs was constructed to offer a computerized light show.

Today, Brandenberg believes there’s no question that the Fremont Street Experience was necessary for the survival of downtown. "At the time, downtown was on a downward curve," he says. "It allowed us to keep our heads above water. It gave us a mechanism to promote downtown collectively."

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Some of the big name owners of downtown properties had to get used to the idea of another entity representing their interests. As Brandberg puts it diplomatically, Jackie Gaughan, Jack Binion and Steve Wynn were not used to working by committee. "They ran their own properties and very successfully," he said. "Gaughan was concerned because two of his properties would be outside the range" of the Fremont Street Experience.

Brandenberg, born and raised in Las Vegas, graduated from Valley High School in 1975 and Stanford in 1975 with a major in philosophy, and then the University of California at Hastings with a law degree. He practiced law in Las Vegas until he became a co-owner of the Golden Gate "at a reasonable price," and in 1994 he bought out his brother, who moved on to become the chief operating officer of the Greek Town casino in Detroit.

After renovating the Golden Gate he decided to focus on the historical theme embedded in a resort that opened in 1906 under the name of Hotel Nevada.

"Our customers like to see the authentic history of Las Vegas and the other thing they like is that we are very different from the mega resorts. The Golden Gate is an alternative to the megaresorts not only because of our intimate size (but because) we are more genuine."

The marketing approach seems at this point to be working as the Golden Gate is having "a very good year," Brandenberg says.

Brandenberg really had no choice but to hope that the Fremont Street Experience would deliver the crowds that had been fading away for a decade or so ago. "We are so small that (it’s) really not effective for us to advertise out of state," he says. "With only 106 rooms we can’t advertise to bring people downtown. It doesn’t pencil out."

He counts the Golden Gate’s 330 employees as a major asset because "they are genuine and provide genuinely friendly service." Many of them have been at the hotel for 20 years and a few as long as 30.

Some of those employees were working at the Golden Gate when Brandeberg made one of his riskiest decisions, which was to raise the price of the resort’s world famous shrimp cocktail from 50 cents to 99 cents in 1991. It was a decision made out of necessity as the resort was losing $300,000 a year at the cheaper price but Brandenberg still experienced anxiety pangs when he raised the price. Happily, the cocktails are still big sellers.

"There have been financial challenges downtown and at the Golden Gate since the day I got here," he says, and as a result, "we’ve had to do more with less.

"Out of my biggest frustration comes my biggest satisfaction," he adds. "We provide a wonderful property with wonderful service despite our limited resources."