Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006 | 7:59 a.m.
It's early afternoon at the Skyline Casino on Boulder Highway, where the beer is cheap, the slots are loose and the hot dogs, sometimes, are free.
Retiree Carl Gaines, 72, already has been keeping company with a video poker machine for a few hours.
Gaines is one of many regulars at the Skyline, a small, older casino that has managed to hum along profitably amid newer and bigger competition in Las Vegas.
For Gaines, who gambles at the Skyline every day, the casino is more than a place to drop a few bucks.
"It's my family," he said.
He used to come to the casino with his wife, who died a few months ago. His four sons live in California and Arizona. As for his friends, they also can be found at the Skyline, feeding quarters into nearby machines and chatting about their kids, cars and just about any other topic that flies freely between people who've known each other for years.
Nearby, retired casino worker Shareen Saurer, 57, remembers the time Skyline owner and car dealer Jim Marsh replaced her car after it was hit by an uninsured driver in the casino's parking lot.
"He's a square guy," she said of Marsh, a friendly man with a shock of white hair who often stops by to check on his employees and customers.
"If I ever have a problem with anyone here, I go to him," Saurer said.
When Saurer's 84-year-old mother had a stroke, waitresses called emergency, applied cold packs to the woman and comforted her until the paramedics came.
"In a bigger casino you'd be left on the floor," Saurer said. "I know because I've worked at some of them. This place is different. It's friendly and everyone knows you."
The Skyline is one of more than 40 smaller casinos that dot the valley, throwbacks to an earlier time before the spread of large, mall-like suburban casinos that have multiple restaurant and entertainment venues such as movie theaters and bowling alleys.
These minicasinos are privately owned, family-run or entrepreneurial operations only miles from some of the wealthiest corporate giants in the world.
Some of these small properties have hotels and a handful of table games, but most are slot joints with a restaurant, bar and maybe a lounge or a stage. They can make a few million dollars a year, in contrast with the hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling revenue generated by the bigger casinos .
They tend to have from 70 to 500 slots, a rarely noticed casino category that falls somewhere between the slot bars and restaurant taverns with perhaps a dozen or few dozen slots and the bigger local properties, which can have more than 1,000 slots.
Several of these overlooked smaller casinos are within a few miles of each other along Boulder Highway, a thoroughfare of motels and watering holes that was overshadowed by the construction of U.S. 95.
These smaller casinos tend to be in older neighborhoods on small parcels of land that limit their growth prospects.
They are relics in more ways than one. Restrictions on where off-Strip casinos can build have prevented new casinos from sprouting up on promising street corners. Big locals operators such as Station Casinos are betting on bigger, more luxurious properties more appealing to suburbanites moving into pricier neighborhoods.
But the meal deals for which Las Vegas was once known -- which have largely vanished from the bigger properties -- live on at some of the smaller casinos, although inflation has affected prices.
The Gold Rush offers a $4 prime rib and top sirloin for $5.99. The Magic Star used to offer a $3.99 T-bone steak that's now $6.99. The Skyline also has succumbed to rising prices, now charging $5.95 for prime rib on Wednesdays and $8.95 other days -- a meal that cost about $5 a couple of years ago.
The Ellis Island near the Strip, a strictly locals joint that attracts mostly casino workers after their shifts, has offered a 10-ounce top sirloin dinner for $4.95 every day for the past several years.
It's a loss leader that has kept customers returning -- and kept more money in their pockets to gamble with, Ellis Island President Karen Dorsey said.
"Business has never been better," she said.
"The key to our success has been to maintain the status quo. We're keeping our specials even if the economy is dictating that we raise prices. Word spreads fast when you've got a good product. And when locals have friends and family come to town, they bring them here."
For frequent customers, smaller casinos are a home away from home in a transitory town that has grown exponentially for decades. Barbara Smith, 62, has been going to the Klondike Sunset Casino at the corner of Sunset Road and Boulder Highway for more than 10 years. She eats there and plays nickel machines a few times a week.
Smith, who's retired, lives near the much bigger Sunset Station. But she prefers the cozier Klondike.
"It's like your neighborhood bar," she said. "There's more interaction with people. I know everyone in this place. I see the same people and say hi."
For operators, these casinos are far from a dying breed.
Klondike owner Michael Woodrum says smaller casinos such as his are a throwback to a bygone era when casino managers and owners knew all of their customers and employees by name.
"We're not a large turnstile operation," he said. "Our customers get to know our employees. I even do promotions where the employees have to introduce themselves to players.
"I really try to create that old-style environment where you're king or queen for a day. I make people feel special, whether they're a nickel player or a dollar player."
The fact that Station has bought up some of the competition "creates more business for me," Woodrum said. "A lot of my customers don't want to go to a Station's property. It's nothing against Station -- I think they're geniuses and they've done really well in the valley.
"There are just things they can't do because they're so big."
Nevada Palace owner Bill Wortman says many customers at his Boulder Highway casino "feel overwhelmed" at bigger properties. "It's a comfort level," Wortman said. "But most importantly, it's the people. It's easier for them to become known to the employees who work there. They go in to see Mary or Sam or Martha. They really become part of the family.
Wortman, a partner in the much larger Cannery Casino in North Las Vegas, plans to break ground sometime this year on a bigger version of the Cannery next to Nevada Palace. The older casino would eventually be torn down once the new property is built. Employees and, Wortman hopes, casino customers will like the new place and stay on.
"These people are my family, too," he said.
Station Casinos, with its ever-expanding empire of new properties, casino additions and acquisitions, has not overlooked the small casino market.
It picked up the small Wildfire casino in North Las Vegas in 2003, followed by the Gold Rush and Magic Star in Henderson in 2004. A few months ago it purchased the Greens, a small restaurant and casino in Henderson. Station owns the property with the Greenspun family, publishers of the Las Vegas Sun.
The purchases were not a defensive move to keep out competition, given that the properties are not a big part of the company's business and have limited growth potential because of their size, Station Chief Development Officer Scott Nielson said.
But they are still an important part of the locals' gambling experience, Nielson said.
"They have a nice, built-in clientele and they're convenient because of their location," he said. "People are driving by them on a regular basis."
Some customers of the smaller properties also frequent Station's bigger casinos, Nielson said.
"Sometimes you go to 7-Eleven and sometimes you go to Albertson's," he said. "Sometimes you're looking for a smaller, more intimate experience and sometimes you want a larger crowd. If all you want to do is make a sports bet, it's even more convenient than the larger properties."
Despite their limited growth potential, small casinos are a stable business that will continue to do well as Las Vegas' population keeps growing, he said.
While a handful of older properties have closed in recent years, many others are thriving -- the result of a booming economy and growing population that is benefiting bigger locals casinos and Strip resorts alike.
Operators say the business appears to be stronger and more predictable than ever, as elderly casino customers continue to frequent the same haunts and younger customers return to properties where they have made friends among other gamblers and employees.
One North Las Vegas beneficiary is Jerry's Nugget, at the northern end of Las Vegas Boulevard just north of downtown Las Vegas.
"If the local gaming market is doing well, anyone who has a well-run local gaming establishment will do well," General Manager Peter DeMangus said.
DeMangus calls Jerry's Nugget "a miniature version" of Station Casinos' nearby Texas Station and Santa Fe Station -- giant locals properties that rival Strip resorts in size and scope.
Like other smaller casinos, most of the Nugget's customers are regulars who live close by. But the property also gets a fair share of locals who drive farther for the atmosphere and meal deals.
"We think we've been successful over the years as the conglomerates have moved in because we are known for value and food quality," DeMangus said.
"It's an easier thing to say and a tough thing to prove, but I think we can prove it because we've got customers from around the valley. They could go to any number of other places, but choose to come here."
The casino, at the southern end of growing North Las Vegas, also is seeing a trickle of newer customers who have recently moved to town.
"We're always getting new people trying us out," he said.
Regular minicasino gamblers such as Gaines and Smith typically spend anywhere from $20 to $100 per visit.
At some smaller properties, employees greet regulars by name the way that a high roller might be welcomed at a luxury resort.
But the similarities end there. Many smaller properties are comparatively dingy, with well-worn carpets, dark or low ceilings and old-school mirrored walls with lightbulb accents.
Regulars such as Smith, though, aren't looking for glitz or gimmicks.
"People like to feel good when they go into a place. That's what it's like here," she said of the Klondike.
The competition for business among smaller properties is fierce. Although most customers live nearby, it's difficult for them not to pass a competitor on the way to their favorite haunt.
That's especially true on Boulder Highway, which has one of the highest concentrations of casinos of any commercial corridor off the Strip and which also boasts the largest average payback percentage for slot machines in Las Vegas.
Marsh said some of his Skyline customers also patronize bigger locals casinos.
"Our customers are loyal, but Henderson is still a pretty competitive market," he said.
Besides offering meal deals, the Skyline is known for having one of the last remaining banks of older slot machines in Las Vegas. Like a well-used fleet of vintage cars, a bank of the prized video poker machines stands near the back, nearly all of them noisy from the clank-clank sound of coins hitting a metal change tray.
It's an increasingly rare sound in Las Vegas, where most casinos have installed "cashless" machines that dispense tickets.
Many of the people who don't like the newer machines can be found at older properties such as the Skyline. Paper tickets are too impersonal and eliminate the interaction with casino "change girls," they say. Some customers also are resentful that bigger properties have laid off change employees who are no longer needed.
"These so-called dinosaur machines are the backbone of our casino," said Marsh, whose newer, ticket machines with fancy themes such as "Star Wars" stood empty on a recent weekday afternoon. "If we took those (older machines) out, we'd probably lose 50 percent of our business."
Irene Baird, 90, is a Skyline regular who does not go for the newer machines.
"It's a friendly, neighborhood atmosphere," said Baird, who often plays video poker with her daughter. Baird retired in Boulder City from Denver more than 20 years ago and has been coming to the Skyline ever since.
"We have a lot of fun here," she said.
The smaller casinos also are witnessing a newer crop of customers from nearby homes and apartments that continue to sprout up around Boulder Highway.
On weekends and at nightfall the Skyline attracts younger customers who come for live entertainment, attracted by country music and a small dance floor.
"The area out here is growing fast and because of ordinances, you're not going to see any more little casinos opening up out here," Woodrum said about the area around his Klondike. "I think the future's bright."
Liz Benston can be reached at 259-4077 or at [email protected]