Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2003 | 11:08 a.m.
The National Park Service has sought for decades to purchase the Hacienda casino, located within what is now the Lake Mead National Recreation Area along U.S. Highway 93 west of Boulder City and long considered an aberration at the entrance to one of the most-visited parks in the nation.
After decades of waiting, the Park Service may now have its chance.
The owners of the Hacienda Hotel & Casino have recently approached Lake Mead officials about possibly selling the property, an action that has triggered a government-funded appraisal and hazardous materials review of the site that is expected by March, National Park Service spokeswoman Roxanne Dey said.
An ill-fated attempt by the government to take over the property in the 1960s led to a 1973 settlement in federal court that specifically prohibits the Park Service from discussing a sale unless approached by the casino owners first, Dey said.
"The government has been hands-off," she said. "There's nothing ambiguous about the language of the settlement."
The Park Service had attempted to secure the land as early as the 1950s, prior to the creation of the Lake Mead Recreation Area in 1964, she said.
"It really bothered the Park Service when (the casino) went up on privately held land," she said. "Can you imagine a casino at the entrance to Yellowstone? Probably not."
Casino representatives, including general manager Bill Ensign, could not be reached for comment on the possibility of a sale.
Some 13,000 to 16,000 people cross Hoover Dam each day, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Lake Mead is the 5th busiest national park, with about 8 to 10 million visitors a year, the Park Service says. That number doesn't include people who bypass the park to cross Hoover Dam.
The Hoover Dam Bypass Project, a four-year plan to carve out a faster freeway to replace the meandering road over the dam, isn't expected to disturb access to the casino.
The bypass project begins about a quarter of a mile east of the casino and has been designed in phases so as not to disrupt traffic flow during construction, said Dave Zanetell, a project manager with the Federal Highway Administration.
The Nevada side of the bypass is expected to be complete in about two years, though the last piece of the project, the bridge over the Colorado River, won't be in place for about four years, he said. The Arizona side is about half complete and should be finished by summer 2004.
The casino, about 3 miles west of Hoover Dam, was built atop a patented mining claim that dates from the early part of the century. It's unclear when the casino was first built, though Clark County building permit officials say their first building records for the site date back to 1958, when the parcel featured a small, Old West-style watering hole for tourists. The modern structure dates from around 1982.
It was called the Gold Strike Inn until the casino area burned down in 1998. It reopened with a southwestern look the following year as the Hacienda, which at the time featured about 375 rooms and 80,000 square feet of casino space.
While miniscule compared to its counterparts in Las Vegas, the property holds the distinction of being the first Nevada casino Arizona drivers see as they make their way up Highway 93 to Las Vegas.
The government is required by law to pay a "fair market price" for private properties. The improvements to the Hacienda over the years, as well as its prime location near the dam and Lake Mead, may price it out of range, Dey said.
The property's taxable value last year was about $11.4 million, county records show.
The casino owners have been good neighbors at Lake Mead, cooperating with cleanup efforts and other initiatives, she said. If the Park Service is not able to acquire the property, it may be sold to someone else who may not cooperate as well with the government, she said.
"We are very concerned here at the park. This is where most people enter (Lake Mead)," she said.
Possible future uses for the casino site are "wide open" and include transforming the building into a government training center or an educational center for camping groups or retreats, she said. The Park Service has yet to complete a re-use analysis for the site.
Dennis McBride, curator of the Boulder City Museum and Historical Association, said he was surprised to learn of the owner's interest in a possible sale.
The Hacienda, as well as the Railroad Pass casino to the west of Boulder City, has long been a popular escape for Boulder City residents and has relieved pressure to legalize gambling in town, McBride said.
Boulder City remains the only town in Nevada where gambling isn't allowed.
"It's a lucrative location," he said.
Residents generally have a favorable impression of the casino, which has been a "friendly neighbor" to the town and has supported local events, he added.