Thursday, Jan. 29, 2004 | 11:12 a.m.
The plan by the Moulin Rouge's new owners to build a $200 million casino and entertainment complex on the 15-acre site devastated by arson last spring has one local gaming expert saying such an undertaking does not appear to be a good idea for that property.
"It's going to be a struggle," said University of Nevada, Las Vegas Professor Bill Thompson, an expert on gaming. "It's such a lousy location."
The leaders of the Moulin Rouge Development Corporation not only do not disagree with that assessment of the property at 900 W. Bonanza Road, they are banking on it.
"Bad is not necessarily bad for us," Moulin Rouge Development Corporation President Dale Scott said Wednesday, referring to the economically depressed area surrounding the site of the first integrated casino in Las Vegas that opened in 1955.
"This is a redevelopment area, and every redevelopment area has a flagship. We will be the flagship of the redevelopment of West Las Vegas."
Scott and partners Rod Bickerstaff and Chauncey Moore say that when they build the project and open it -- tentatively by December 2005 -- nothing else for miles around will compare to the Moulin Rouge for entertainment, retail and cultural activities until the rest of the area catches up many years from now.
They reckon there will be no other 500-room hotel with 20 corporate suites nearby. They figure no one else will offer a 40,000-square-foot, two-story casino with 1,000 slot machines, 40 card tables and a sports bar.
They will have the area's only 500-seat showroom. Their Motown Cafe figures to be the best restaurant in that part of town. And nothing will compare to Club Rouge, an upscale bar atop the hotel, they say.
A nine-screen movie theater on the site and a 117,000-square-foot events center should be welcomed in that part of the city, they said. And a planned 9,000-square-foot community center will be popular with church groups, children and community organizations, the owners believe.
The Moulin Rouge Museum & Cultural Center is to feature artifacts and photos telling the history of Black Las Vegas and preserving African-American heritage
Add to all of that a child care facility, buffet, bingo hall, retail center, convention rooms and a sound stage, and the new owners say they believe they have a winning combination for a resurrected Moulin Rouge.
"When we began this project 15 months ago, we sought to restore the Moulin Rouge and revitalize the area," Scott said as he made final preparations for a party tonight to celebrate the purchase of the property from Canadian investor Bart Maybie. The $12.1 million sale now only needs approval of the three owners for gaming suitability and licenses, and that's expected to go smoothly, they said.
Also, as part of a ceremony beginning at 5 p.m., the historic neon Moulin Rouge sign -- rescued from the flames of the May 29 arson blaze that destroyed all but the frontage wall of the structure that in 1992 was placed on the National Registrar of Historic Buildings -- will be turned on.
While the owners are tight-lipped about their financing package, they say it is a go, with construction expected to begin by late summer.
"We have the alliances that will allow us to do this project," Bickerstaff said. "The death knell for projects like this is undercapitalization. We are confident we have the funding -- a blend of private and institutional sources -- that will complete the build out."
Thompson, however, is skeptical.
"It is going to take a lot of money to get the owners approved for suitability by gaming authorities," he said. "It could take $50,000 to $100,000 per individual for legal fees and the investigations into their backgrounds, which will include looking at every check stub for the last 10 years and all of their adult acquaintances. And they have to pay that money to the state up front for those background checks.
"Let's say they are clean. Gaming officials also will want to know what their marketing plan is and make sure the owners have enough capital to not only open, but also be able to cover operational losses and potential gaming losses for at least 1 1/2 years."
Thompson said gaming officials will allow applicants the right to fail, but not open on a shoestring and wind up making layoffs two months into the operation. He estimated a casino of that size will need at least $10 million, including $1 million in the casino cage, after construction costs to make a go of it.
The owners say they are not babes in the woods when it comes to gaming.
Moore, who will be the chief operating officer for gaming operations, worked for 13 years at the Sycuan casino in San Diego, where he was director of slot operations and the bingo room. Scott, prior to moving to Las Vegas, was a Los Angeles area gaming equipment dealer and held a suitability license from the state of California.
"When we formed this team, one of the things we made sure was that we are all clean," Scott said. "We are represented by a top local gaming attorney in Jeff Silver, who has laid out the costs and what will be looked at during our background checks. We're prepared for it."
Scott said the marketing plan for the Moulin Rouge will be similar to that of the Texas Station and Fiesta, with business expected to be 60 percent locals and 40 percent tourists.
Las Vegas City Councilman Lawrence Weekly, who grew up in West Las Vegas, said he is optimistic that after so many years of failed attempts to revive the Moulin Rouge by prior owners this revival plan could work.
Thompson said the plusses for the Moulin Rouge include its colorful history. But he noted that the thing that drew large numbers of customers to the casino 50 years ago -- integration -- has not been an issue for decades. Still, it is that history the owners believe will play a role in the success of the operation.
Thompson said the new owners probably would have an easier go if they traded the West Las Vegas property for land in northwest Las Vegas just off the freeway and replicated the Moulin Rouge on that site where gamblers are more likely to come.
"I just don't see people flocking to the present location to gamble," Thompson said. "I believe the Bonanza Road property is better suited for a warehouse, manufacturing or apartments."
The apartments that now are on the site will be demolished after land is acquired to build new apartments or other existing apartments are purchased to relocate the residents who currently pay month-to-month for units that years ago were Moulin Rouge hotel rooms, the owners said.
Scott also noted that Thompson's suggestion of a land swap was at one point considered and that an offer for such a deal was made by a private entity. However, he said, in the end tradition won out.
"This is the site of the original Moulin Rouge," Scott said. "It is and was an important part of this community. And while we are in this to make money, this also is a community project. It would be absurd to build the Moulin Rouge anywhere else."
Scott also said there is a strong spirituality about the Moulin Rouge.
"When I walked through the building before the fire, I got chills up my arms when I realized I was standing where Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., came after doing their shows on the Strip. It is important for grandparents to bring their grandchildren here to experience the history."
The Moulin Rouge initially operated for just six months, gaining international attention as the only casino in town where whites and minorities both enjoyed the amenities. The Strip resorts at the time were segregated and blacks were not allowed as guests.
During its short initial run, significant entertainers including the Platters and Harry Belafonte performed at the Moulin Rouge. It was a jumping night spot well into the wee hours.
In 1960, black community leaders, city officials and hotel-casino owners met at the site to agree to desegregate the Strip. Over the years, a series of owners tried to revive the business, but the attempts failed to recapture its glory days.
In the 1990s, Maybie bought the property. He closed it and brought much of the building up to code, including renovating the kitchen with stainless steel appliances -- all destroyed in the fire along with the murals of cancan dancers and artifacts that were to go into the museum.