Next target for Black Hawk casino owner: Kansas

Interview with Blake Sartini, chairman of Las Vegas-based Golden Gaming, which operates three casinos in Black Hawk

Q: What attracted Golden Gaming, which acquired the casinos in Black Hawk in 2005, to the market?

A: As part of my background with Station Casinos, we were very active in looking at sites around the country. When Colorado was initiating the process of legalizing gaming (in the early 1990s) we had come up and were exploring opportunities in the state. So from that time, we’ve had a familiarity with this area.
When I founded Golden Gaming (in 2001) and began to expand the company, opportunities were coming our way pretty rapidly, and one that was presented to us was an opportunity to get into this market. We liked the Front Range population growth. We liked the adjacency to a metropolitan area. As importantly, the facilities we purchased are in the heart of Black Hawk. The location cannot be beat. We started initially to purchase the Mardi Gras, and in that process we looked at the synergies the Gates has with the Mardi Gras, and then the Gulch. So we put our vision hat on and said lets purchase all three. We can make them contiguous, ultimately, in the future.

Q: How often do you visit the Black Hawk casinos?

A: We’re hands-on operators. We like to see and touch our facilities. I’m probably here once a month. My management team is up here several times a month from the corporate office in Las Vegas.

Q: What are your views on Amendment 50, the November ballot measure that could lead to higher gambling stakes in Colorado?

A: When gaming was legalized, it was established with a USD 5 bet limit. Over the course of those years a lot of things have changed. There’s been significant competition all around the country, both regionally and nationally. The ease of getting to and from Las Vegas on approximately an hour-and-20-minute flight is a real incentive for people to go from here to Las Vegas. This state has a lot to offer outside of gaming, in terms of recreation and alternatives to gaming, which could be a huge component to drawing more tourists, drawing more outside dollars into the state.
The roots behind the initiative began with those thoughts, but ultimately with some recent events occurring, i.e. the smoking ban starting in January, there was a significant challenge to the industry. The macro-economy is a significant challenge to the industry. Those components really were a recent catalyst for the industry to come together and work with representatives within the state and see how both the industry and the state could benefit from a proposed bet-limit increase.

Q: Since gambling has previously been considered recession proof, are you surprised by the downturn the industry is dealing with this year?

A: I’ve been in the industry since 1983, since I graduated from college, and we have not seen a correction in our industry, in particular in Las Vegas, like we’re seeing today. It was not anticipated that a downturn would be as significant as it has turned out to be in our industry.
There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the reasons is that gaming has become, in Las Vegas in particular, a part of a much broader field of attraction. There’s retail, there’s entertainment, there’s lots of things now that are components to driving consumers into casinos. And that retail pullback has been a significant part of the downturn. The gaming figures, in general, have held up relatively better than the overall macro-environment during the downturn. But if you take into account the retail part of it — food, beverage, shopping — that’s where I think the bulk of that downturn really affected Las Vegas.

Q: Given the state of the industry, what’s driving your plans to build a USD 660 million resort casino in Kansas?

A: Kansas was attractive to us for several reasons. No. 1, it’s within a major metropolitan area. No. 2, it’s in an area in which I’m familiar with the casino environment. Kansas has passed a law which allows no-limit, 24-hour, 7-day-a-week Las Vegas-style land-based gaming.
As an entrepreneur in the industry, those components are very important. We’ve proposed a USD 660 million world-class facility that will include a Tom Watson championship-design golf course. We have a plan there that will become a regional destination. We see great synergies between our operations in Colorado and if we were to be awarded this casino in Kansas. There are tremendous synergies both for Coloradans and Kansans to cross-market those facilities. That’s a great benefit for the state of Colorado, with out-of-state revenue coming in, and vice versa for Kansas. It’s very close in proximity. It’s about an hour-and-10-minute flight.

Q: How specifically would this bring revenue into Colorado?

A: We would cross-market our databases. So if we had a database of X-thousands of people in Kansas, we would promote vacations here, we would promote vacations there. The synergies because of the close proximity, particularly in air flight, to those two markets is a very attractive proposition for customers.

Q: What’s the time frame for the development of the casino?

A: The state of Kansas will make a decision (on the application on Friday). We anticipate opening in February 2011.

Q: It’s been rumored that you are a co-owner in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Is that true?

A: My two brother-in-laws are the co-owners of UFC, and it’s doing very well.

Q: Do you like to gamble at casinos?

A: I’m a recreational gambler. There are times when I will go out if friends or family members are in town, or if I’m traveling to a city or state that has gambling. I like to play blackjack. I started my career as a craps dealer, so I’m very versed in the dice game. So I enjoy playing craps and blackjack.