The mystery Vegas casino you can only visit once every two years

Dan Lewis on a gambling institution as elusive as it is downmarket. It's all to do with licensing, naturally.

By Dan Lewis at 4:00 am Wed, Sep 3, 2014

Las Vegas is the gambling capital of the United States. It is home to, per About.com, about 200,000 slot machines across about 1,700 licensed gambling locations. Those "licensed gambling locations" aren't necessarily "casinos," though -- you can find slot machine at the airport, for example, as well as random other places throughout the area. If you really want to gamble in Vegas, it's pretty easy to find someone who will take your money. It can be a very lucrative business.

Even when things are going wrong. Take, for example, the Castaways casino, better known by its name from 1954 to 2000, the Showboat. It was purchased in 2004 by a company called Station Casinos, which operates a number of smaller locations in Vegas. Station Casinos paid about $33 million for what at the time was a 19-story, 445 room hotel with an 80,000 square foot gaming area. That seems like a bargain for an established gaming location, but that's not the whole story. The Castaways building was decrepit and likely unusable, and the business was about to go into bankruptcy.

So what was Station Casinos doing buying a dead company? They were after a loophole.

If you want to open a casino, you need a lot of money -- Station Casinos certainly had that -- but that's not enough to get your business up and running. You also need a gaming license. Applying for a license is a long process with no guarantee of success -- the Nevada Gaming Commission may end up rejecting your bid or establishing a number of conditions, such as not allowing you to build a hotel to go with the roulette wheels and craps tables. But there's another way. You can simply purchase another casino -- one with a license -- and operate it. Renovate the grounds, change the name, built a massive tower to the envy of your fellow hoteliers, whatever. As long as your casino stays where the old one was, you're good to go.

In other words, licenses are transferrable and, therefore, have value. So if you're running a failing casino, you still have an asset worth potentially millions of dollars. The same is true if you have a failed casino, so long as the license hasn't lapsed. The good news is that from the moment you close your doors, you have two years before the license expires. The even better news -- and, importantly for Station Casinos -- is that there's a way to renew that two year window again and again. Technically, to keep the license from lapsing, you need to have been open to the public for eight hours during the previous two years. That creates our neat little loophole -- a temporary casino. Host a small amount of gambling for a few hours every couple of years and you keep your license.

Station Casinos did just that. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, Station reduced the old Castaways casino to rubble shortly after buying it, turning it into a 26 acre dirt lot. But it was a special dirt lot due to the license. In late 2007, Station asked the Gaming Commission for permission to bring in a trailer -- to be in open for one day only -- outfitted with 16 slot machines. By operating this mini "casino," the license stayed alive for another two years. This was particularly valuable to Station, as the Castaways, as the defunct hotel was located in Las Vegas Valley, where, as of 1997, the Gaming Commission no longer allowed "new" hotel-casinos to open.

The Commission accepted Station's proposal. In January of 2008, about two years after the implosion of Castaways (but before that all-important two-year anniversary of its last bet placed), the 400 square foot trailer rolled into the dirt lot and opened for business, according to the New York Times. The casino's eight-hour existence was sparsely attended and the biggest jackpot won was $2.50 -- not that Station Casinos cared either way. They won either way.

They did not, however, end up building a new casino within the two year window ending early 2010 or, for that matter, by the the time of this writing. Instead, the trailers kept coming back, most recently in late 2013. Maybe one day, the casino on the site will be large and permanent, but for now, your best bet is to go elsewhere.

Bonus Fact: Despite the value of a hotel/casino in Las Vegas, the costs of creating one can also be prohibitive. Take, for example, the Fontainebleau Resort Las Vegas. The resort broke ground in late 2007 with a $2.9 billion budget and as of November 2008, was the second-highest building in Vegas. But despite the grandeur, the hotel and casino never opened. It fell into bankruptcy and is likely to be demolished to reclaim the value of the land.

Published 4:00 am Wed, Sep 3, 2014

About the Author

Dan Lewis writes a daily email called “Now I Know,” which you can sign up for by clicking here. His book, Now I Know: The Revealing Stories Behind the World's Most Interesting Facts, is available on Amazon.

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