Wednesday, May 7, 2003 | 11:11 a.m.
The Las Vegas Valley's third casino this year won't debut to great fanfare. But the Casino MonteLago, tucked behind the Ritz-Carlton hotel at Lake Las Vegas in Henderson, still expects to earn a following among Las Vegas locals.
Casino MonteLago, which held a soft opening for a group at the Ritz last week and hosts its grand opening Thursday, expects to draw tourists from the Ritz-Carlton as well as visitors to other Lake Las Vegas amenities such as golf courses, upscale boutiques and a nearby condo complex.
The shops and condos are expected to take more than a year to fully develop as tourist attractions, casino spokesman Ray Brown said. In the meantime, he said, the casino will aggressively market to locals, who will make up the biggest potential base of customers.
Casino MonteLago won't publicize flashy freebies such as cash back bonuses, drawings or other rewards like many other locals' properties do, Brown said.
"We want to reward everyone who comes out here by providing the best gaming value," he said.
Operators expect to attract locals to the property, more than 20 miles from the Strip, with "100 percent payback" favored by video poker players as well as a slot player loyalty club called "Club Uno."
Amenities will include a sports book with plasma TV screens, a 24-hour Italian restaurant and a two-story bar.
"We may look high end and we may be located next to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Spa -- one of the most exclusive luxury hotels in the world -- but we are definitely here to cater to locals," General Manager Danny Davis said.
"We want to give our customers very friendly and personalized service," he said.
The 40,000 square-foot casino will be one of the first in Las Vegas to exclusively feature "cashless" machines that will only accept and dispense paper vouchers. Many casinos, starting with locals' properties and migrating to the Strip, have switched to cashless machines that can accept coins as well as tickets.
About 220 of the casino's roughly 675 slot machines will offer video poker.
Each poker machine will feature 12 game choices in multiple denominations, from nickel wagers to $5 bets. The casino will also include 15 table games, including blackjack, craps, roulette, pai gow poker and mini baccarat.
Mandalay Bay designer Klai Juba Architects of Las Vegas created a subdued shell for the casino that resembles a 15th century Tuscan winery.
It is smaller than other properties that have opened in recent months. The casino at the 201-room Cannery in North Las Vegas is 50,000 square feet, while the off-Strip Tuscany casino on Flamingo Road is about 60,000 square feet in addition to a 716-room hotel.
Both properties cost roughly $100 million to build. Casino MonteLago officials have refused to specify the project's cost.
Casino MonteLago is separately managed from its nearby hotel. It is attached to the Ritz via an overhead walkway and is also accessible from a parking garage that serves the hotel.
It is the second casino to open at Lake Las Vegas, which has been master-planned for at least five resort casinos.
The 496-room Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas, the first hotel property, opened in December 1999 with an 8,000 square-foot casino and fewer than 200 slot machines. The casino isn't open 24 hours like its bigger competitors, with hours from 7 a.m. to about 2 a.m. most days.
The Hyatt's casino is considered an amenity rather than a primary attraction and mainly depends on group and convention business, casino operations director Riccardo Ingrassia said.
Casino MonteLago isn't viewed as direct competition because the Hyatt isn't betting on much local business, he said. Also, the surrounding retail shops are expected to drive more business to all Lake Las Vegas properties, he said.
The Hyatt has an occupancy rate in the 70 percent to 80 percent range, general manager Dan Amato said.
Occupancy so far this year is up from last, which suffered after the Sept. 11 attacks, he Amato said.
"We've had a good year so far and have seen an increase in our leisure business as well as our group business. And the casino had its best quarter ever."
The Ritz, which is part of the Marriott chain of hotels, marks the debut of the Ritz brand in Nevada.
The 349-room property has had many sold out weekends and several sold out weekdays since it opened in February, Ritz spokeswoman Bonnie Crail said.
Crail declined to reveal the property's occupancy rate, saying it was too early to determine an average.
"We've had a fast start," she said. "For a time period that ended a few days ago there was almost two weeks at a stretch where we were fully booked."
The Ritz has signs that direct customers to the casino and has made guests aware of the amenity, Crail said.
"There has been positive customer interest in the casino, from individuals as well as groups," she said.
Casino MonteLago is owned by CIRI Lakeside Gaming Investors LLC, which was licensed by gaming regulators last year. CIRI is a division of Cook Inlet Region Inc., a corporation owned by members of an Alaskan Indian tribe. CIRI also has a stake in the Hyatt. Host Marriott Corp., which owns the Ritz-Carlton chain, has a minor stake in the Ritz. The property is primarily owned by a group of investors including CIRI and Santa Barbara-based Transcontinental Properties, which owns the Lake Las Vegas Resort development.
CIRI's licensing process was unique in that the Nevada Gaming Control Board required only a few of the company's thousands of shareholders to submit to background checks.
A separate management company, Sybro LLC, will run the casino for CIRI. Sybro partner Dan Reichartz is a former president of Caesars Palace. Reichartz' 50 percent partner, Dan Scott, has held senior management positions at Caesars Palace and MGM Grand.
The casino's management strategy is similar to that used by the Rampart Casino located at the J.W. Marriott Resort in Summerlin. The former Regent casino failed to lure gamblers from the Strip when it opened in 1999 and then tried to pitch itself to locals while the rest of the property was shopped in bankruptcy court. The Rampart managers, who also own the Cannery, say they have turned around the far-flung resort by aggressively marketing to Summerlin residents.
In the meantime, the retail area of MonteLago Village is mostly empty as leasing continues amid hopes it will be filled by the end of the year.
The shops in the open-air center, which was built to resemble an Italian village, began opening last month and will continue to open as the space is completed. The MonteLago Village at Lake Las Vegas Resort is connected to the Ritz-Carlton and the MonteLago Casino.
Unlike other retail centers around Las Vegas, including those connected to casinos, MonteLago Village will have no large retailers or national chains.
"We look for more unique stores, with a high level of service. It's different if you have the owner there," Sharon Allen, director of the village, said. "It's the whole experience, and it's not the same thing two blocks away."
Greeting customers who have come to see the few open stores on a weekday afternoon, Saskia Bende, owner of Alexander Perfumes & Cosmetics, said she has noticed a lot of local interest in the development.
"It was the ambiance of everything," Bende said as she showed a customer an Italian fold-up brush. "It is a really high-end luxury resort and it really fits our clientele."
Allen said the center will be a place for locals and tourists to gather for events, festivals and to spend a leisurely afternoon on the lake's waterfront.
"I want to use the whole village as a stage," she said, adding there will eventually be street performers and live music concerts.
The Sun's Jennifer Shubinski
contributed to this story.