The last time a casino in downtown Las Vegas was built from the ground up, Muhammad Ali was stepping into the boxing ring with Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace.
When the Sundance — later Fitzgerald’s and now The D Las Vegas — opened, a T-bone steak dinner in the coffee shop was $3.95 and cars were still cruising what is now the Fremont Street Experience.
That was circa 1980.
Forty years later, the next downtown casino to rise from an empty desert lot is set to open Wednesday. Fittingly, it is called Circa, a $1 billion tribute to bygone eras in the evolution of Sin City.
The grand opening of Circa is not only a triumph for owners Greg Stevens and his flamboyant brother and frontman Derek Stevens, who also own The D and Golden Gate.
It is a “game changer” for downtown Las Vegas, said Andrew Simon, CEO of the Fremont Street Experience, the pedestrian entertainment pavilion that fronts the casinos.
“For 40 years, there has not been a new property built from scratch down here. That’s most of my life,” Simon said. “It’s a huge deal for Fremont Street Experience.”
Even rival casino operators are welcoming the competition.
“It’s going to add a new dimension downtown,” said Jonathan Jossel, CEO of the Plaza, which sits just across the street. “It’s true that we’re in the casino and hotel business, but people don’t always realize that we’re also in the redevelopment of downtown Las Vegas business. As downtown gets better, we all get better.”
Kevin Glass, general manager of the Downtown Grand, echoed those sentiments.
“What’s good for downtown is good for all of us,” Glass said. “We can’t wait to see what Derek and his team have in store.”
Robert Lang, executive director of the Brookings Mountain West think tank at UNLV, noted that downtown Las Vegas is "the original large-scale area for casinos," while the Strip later grew with big resorts, live entertainment and conventions.
Downtown "was surpassed by the Strip in the ‘50s and ‘60s and has re-emerged in recent years as a niche market for younger tourists who seek a traditional city and vibrant street life," he said.
The new kid on the block, Circa is also a beacon on the horizon of a gloomy economy decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. When fully staffed, the resort will employ about 1,500 people.
Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered casinos shuttered in mid-March to help slow the spread of the virus, and they were not allowed to start reopening until June 4.
Since then, casinos have struggled to bounce back and a handful have not yet reopened. Downtown's Main Street Station remained closed as of last week.
Gaming revenue and hotel occupancy have tanked, air travel is a fraction of pre-pandemic levels and thousands of casino and hotel workers have been laid off.
In August, about 1.7 million people passed through McCarran International Airport, down 61% from the same month in 2019.
Downtown hotel occupancy in August was about 40%, half of what is was a year ago, and gaming revenue was off nearly 22%.
For Allen Meredith, an airbrush artist who works at a stand on Fremont Street, any bump in foot traffic Circa can bring would be welcome.
Meredith said he made just $60 Monday at his airbrush stand. Before the pandemic, a “medium” day in sales would be about $550, he said.
“I hope Circa helps,” Meredith said as he painted a T-shirt Tuesday night. “It’s better down here than it was two months ago, but it’s still horrible during the daytime hours on weekdays.”
Despite the pandemic, Derek Stevens said he never wavered on moving ahead with Circa, even though the 777-room, 35-story hotel tower will not open until later.
The idea for Circa came together when the Stevens group purchased the old Las Vegas Club in 2015. It was knocked down to make room for the new resort, which includes a three-level sportsbook and a 7,000-square-foot casino with over 1,300 slots and nearly 50 table games.
It will be the only casino-hotel in town only serving people 21 and older, and identification will be checked at the door.
Circa also touts a massive Stadium Swim rooftop pool complex.
“This is different. This is an attraction,” Derek Stevens said of the poolside sights and sounds in a reception area about 100 feet above street level. He compared the concept to Top Golf venues mixing sports, drinks and entertainment.
He pointed to swim-up bars, cabanas, lounges, day beds, air-conditioned luxury boxes and eateries below an immense outdoor video screen able to show concerts or multiple sports games at the same time.
“A lot of pools in the history of Las Vegas were really designed as an amenity to the hotel,” he said. “This hotel is almost an amenity to Stadium Swim.”
Derek Stevens said Circa, like his other downtown casinos, will focus on the “independent traveler,” instead of people attending conventions or other groups.
“Those are our core customers,” he said.
Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said she can’t wait for Circa to open.
“I am so excited to see Derek Stevens realize his latest dream in downtown Las Vegas,” Goodman said.
Derek Stevens can’t wait, either.
“The fact that we can bring some excitement to Las Vegas during a year that nobody will ever forget, that’s what has me the most excited,” he said.
Associated Press writer Ken Ritter contributed to this report.
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