Derek Stevens and I had a similar experience at the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, but he ended up buying it, and I just hung around and ate cheeseburgers and shrimp cocktails.
Last week, Stevens opened his presentation about his new Downtown resort, Circa, by explaining to a very buzzy, excited audience how he came to purchase a stake in the Golden Gate on Fremont and Main streets, the oldest hotel and casino in the state of Nevada.
“Me and some buddies of mine were driving down I-15. We pull off and come into Downtown Las Vegas, we stop into the Golden Gate, go to the casino cage, pull up a house phone and ask to talk to the owner,” he said. “They connected me. He actually picked up the phone, and Mark Brandenburg said, ‘How can I help you?’
“I said, ‘Well, we’re a couple guys from Detroit, and we’re interested in buying a casino.’ I figured we were gonna get shut down right there. Mark said, ‘Come on up.’ I was so surprised. We were in our best flip-flops and T-shirts and shorts, but we went up and hit it off.”
A little history: Brandenburg is a former lawyer who ditched his practice to join the family business. His stepfather was Italo Ghelfi, the leader of a group of Italian-American businessmen from San Francisco who took over the property in 1955. That’s where the name comes from. When it originally opened in 1906, a year after the land auction that gave birth to Las Vegas, it was called Hotel Nevada.
Around 30 years ago, Brandenburg and his brother Craig started buying out the other owners. A little more than 10 years ago, I also strolled into the Golden Gate and asked to speak to the owner; I was working on a book that would never be published, and I wanted to interview him. Like Stevens, I was a little surprised at how easy it was to get access to the owner of an iconic Downtown casino, but Brandenburg was incredibly friendly and happy to talk about his family and the history of the Golden Gate.
Stevens' initial meeting there was the first domino to tip and initialize an unlikely reaction that brings us to the Circa Resort & Casino, under construction and scheduled to open in December 2020, the first new resort to be built Downtown in 40 years. It’s clear that the little bit of history I’ve just shared with you was also learned by Stevens, along with many other lessons about the history of Downtown and the Strip and the city’s long line of gaming developers and pioneers. That’s what the name “Circa” represents—it’s an homage to Jackie Gaughan, Benny Binion, Jay Sarno, Sam Boyd and all the others who constructed casinos but also built the idea of Vegas, an attempt to get close enough to that collective legacy to inspire the same appreciation of the unique history of this place.
Like the Brandenburgs did before them, Stevens and his brother Greg eventually acquired the entirety of the Golden Gate as well as Fitzgerald’s on the opposite end of the Fremont Street Experience, which they renovated and rebranded as the D. They bought more land to the south of the D and created the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center, where Stevens has been experimenting with a wide array of events to fuel creative ideas for what can be done at Circa. The impressive designs for the new resort include a rooftop deck and amphitheater with six swimming pools and a 125-foot screen, capable of taking the concerts and watch parties from the DLVEC to the next level.
The Vegas Vickie kicking cowgirl neon sign that was outside the Glitter Gulch strip club—one of the properties Stevens acquired along with the Las Vegas Club casino and hotel in order to create Circa—will have a new home in the lobby of the 777-room hotel. The Vegas sportsbook Stevens first fell in love with—the Las Vegas Hilton’s SuperBook—will be extrapolated at Circa into a multi-level, stadium-style experience, “the largest sportsbook in Las Vegas history,” he said.
Throughout his presentation (and really, his career in Las Vegas so far), Stevens consistently acknowledged the grand history of Las Vegas casinos and referenced those risk-takers and game-changers who created it, but he’s not necessarily trying to join that club. He’s trying to access everyone’s nostalgia for the good old days of Vegas, whenever you think that was, and build something new that can harness those warm feelings.
We all know nothing generates excitement and brings visitors to Las Vegas like a brand-new, ground-up casino resort, but we haven’t had one since the very end of 2010. Whether Circa is the next is not as important to its creator as what the future represents and how it can also harness Las Vegas’ vibrant past.
“It’s a combination of all these great entrepreneurs, all these men and women who came up with these ideas at that moment, in their eras, and created a wow moment,” Stevens told me after his big speech last week, Mayor Carolyn Goodman standing next to him. “That’s what I think Las Vegas is based upon, doing something bigger, better, more unique and different.”