Friday, Jan. 3, 2003 | 11:03 a.m.
Thursday night's opening of the Cannery in North Las Vegas didn't feature any pro basketball players, pop singers or movie stars.
What it lacked in star power it made up for in people power, as hundreds of people -- mostly locals -- streamed in before 10 p.m. to become the first to tap the slot machines, roll the dice and try for good poker hands at the first Las Vegas-area casino to open this year.
Lisa Harper stood near the entrance, watching her husband play a slot machine.
"This is the kind of casino that we like," said Harper, of North Las Vegas. "It's not too big. And it's close by."
One of only three Las Vegas-area casinos to be licensed by state regulators last year, the Cannery, rising from the corner of Craig and Losee roads near Interstate 15, is an unusual corner of glitz among the drab industrial complexes nearby.
At least 10 miles from the Las Vegas Strip and at least six miles from the nearest major casinos in northern Las Vegas, the Cannery is a unique development that comes as new political and economic forces are making new casinos even more difficult to build, experts say.
Surrounding the property is one of the fastest-growing residential ZIP codes in the United States -- homes owned by 30-somethings to 50-somethings and up who make at least $54,000 per year. Before Thursday, these residents had to drive several miles south or west to partake in bigger gambling action and entertainment.
They're people like Bob Corsale, a recent transplant from New York who watched his wife play slots at midnight Thursday.
"It's one of the nicest local casinos I've seen," Corsale, 50, said. He has visited other casinos, including Station Casinos and Coast Casinos properties, but said he would lean toward the Cannery because it's closer to home.
"I'm not really a gambler. But we love to eat out. We'll see about their service," he said.
The mood Thursday night was upbeat as locals jammed table games, waited in long lines to sign up for slot player club cards and stood aside, ready to pounce on freed-up slot machines.
Raymond Jones, 51, had a drink in the bar while he waited for a table game to open up.
Jones, who recently bought a home nearby after renting in the San Francisco Bay Area, said he came to the opening to be a part of the experience.
"We can tell people (in California) that we went to a casino opening."
Drinks were also reasonably priced, he said, a reason to come back again.
Nearby, Arturo Llorens and companion Juanita Pacheco played slots.
"We came for the excitement, the positive anticipation, the novelty," said Llorens, 55.
They also came to try their luck.
Slots have better payouts on opening night, said Llorens, gesturing to Pacheco, 39, a blackjack tournament player who has gambled elsewhere across town.
"Right? We'll see what happens," he said.
Small even by neighborhood casino standards, the $105 million Cannery's 201-room hotel and 50,000 square-foot casino are dwarfed by the thousands of rooms and hundreds of thousands of feet of casino games in the average Strip resort.
The property is the first of its kind in the Craig Road/Interstate 15 area of North Las Vegas, a city of more than 130,000 people that has grown rapidly in the shadow of one of the world's biggest tourist destinations and where residents have complained about the relative lack of entertainment options.
"We think we're in the right place at the right time," Cannery General Manager Jim Dickstein said. "I think this is something that North Las Vegas needed and wanted."
Anthony Curtis, publisher of the gamblers' newsletter Las Vegas Advisor, said the Cannery's operators have shown that they can run a locals casino.
The Cannery -- owned by casino executives William Paulos and William Wortman as well as contractor Robert Mendenhall -- will be operated by another company controlled by Paulos, Wortman and former casino executive and Nevada gaming regulator Guy Hillyer.
The company, Millennium Management, also manages the Rampart casino at the J.W. Marriott Las Vegas Resort. Millennium says it has reversed the failing fortunes of the Rampart casino, which failed to aggressively court locals who didn't take to the country-club atmosphere in the upscale hotel.
"They made the place a lot less intimidating," Curtis said.
Millennium leveled what had been a sunken casino pit, moved a buffet closer to the casino floor and pumped up mailers and other casino promotions -- all strategies that have attracted more locals.
The Cannery needs to welcome residents with good food, lots of parking and strong casino promotions -- and its unique look is a good start, he said.
"It's not cookie-cutter."
The Cannery, which looks like a nightclub mixed in with a post-World War II-era fruit packing warehouse, was crafted with a heavy dollop of theming usually reserved for big Strip resorts. Television and radio ads prior to the opening blared big band music and singers in the style of a vintage advertising jingle. The retro look is steeped into every detail of the property, from the fruit-patterned carpet to bold uniforms, Betty Grable-like leg lamps and pin-up girl posters.
Paulos and Wortman, both former executives with big casino companies, have bold dreams for the property.
"We themed to give it a little bit more pizazz," said Paulos in a recent interview with In Business Las Vegas, a sister publication of the Las Vegas Sun. "I was with Circus Circus (Enterprises Inc.) for 14 years so theming is part of my life."
Like other locals' casinos, the Cannery aims to offer more personalized service and a comfortable atmosphere that can't be found in tourist-charged Strip resorts.
The circular casino has an open floor plan with a centrally located bar -- allowing customers to easily locate friends as well as their favorite slot machines, owners say.
Restaurants and a sports bar are located off the main floor in a hub-and-spoke formation.
The Cannery is offering a twist on casino entertainment. Rather than a permanent nightclub or lounge entertainment, the property has a multi-purpose room near a buffet bar that will accommodate special events year-round.
The Cannery has already attracted interested applicants from a variety of employers across the valley -- from major Strip casinos to neighborhood bars.
About 10,000 people applied for only 900 available positions at the Cannery -- applicants who lined up around the block of the casino's employment center when it opened in October.
The surprising number of applicants indicates that a growing number of North Las Vegas residents are looking to work closer to home and that Strip properties in some cases still haven't reinstated hours and benefits that were cut after Sept. 11, 2001, said Dickstein, who previously served as director of casino operations at Station Casinos' Palace Station.
"People had hours reduced or never got called back or got called back part time. We offer full-time employment with benefits."
Dickstein said the Cannery also hired people with no casino experience to work in various positions.
"We picked personality and intelligence and said, 'We'll train you to do the job.' "
Across town in North Las Vegas, Jerry's Nugget casino isn't sweating the competition.
"We know it's one of the last gaming sites available and they took advantage of that," General Manager Peter DeMangus said.
"I think it's going to grow the market. I'm real bullish on (North Las Vegas) and with the type of management team they've put together, I think it's a real enhancement to the city."
Before the Cannery, many North Las Vegas locals who wanted big, off-Strip casino action drove to Santa Fe Station, Texas Station and the Fiesta, larger casinos owned by dominant neighborhood operator Station Casinos.
The Cannery pressed on past the city's initial objections to build the property and, because of its location, the casino will likely maintain its competitive position for years.
It is one of just a handful of locals' casino projects allowed to move forward after a 1997 state law that aimed to restrict the spread of casinos in residential areas off the Strip.
The site, originally zoned for industrial use, wasn't intended for the kind of traffic that a casino can generate, North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon said.
Still, the casino -- which isn't next to homes -- wasn't opposed by residents like another North Las Vegas casino site advanced by Station Casinos and later thwarted by the 1997 law that allowed residents to block casino projects by appealing to the state.
The city also feared a lawsuit by Cannery developers and allowed the casino to move forward.
Roadway improvements, in part prompted by the casino, will further widen Craig Road and the I-15 interchange to improve access around the property.
The casino's gaming revenue taxes and property taxes will ultimately be a boon for the city, said Montandon, a construction manager.
"They have a pretty proven track industry as the engine that drives our economy. We've crunched the numbers and it's phenomenal -- they generate more revenue for the city than hundreds, if not thousands, of houses."
He expects to leave patronage up to residents.
"I'm not really much of a casino-goer. I don't gamble and only go to (casino) restaurants occasionally."