Nevadan at Work: Exec strives to help El Cortez lead downtown revival

The 70-year-old El Cortez owes its longevity to former owner and gaming legend Jackie Gaughan and to current owner Kenny Epstein, Gaughan's protégé.

But the downtown property's future is in the hands of Epstein's daughter, Alex, who left Las Vegas to attend Columbia University in New York City and returned after college to help run the place.

"The El Cortez is really special in that it's the last of a dying breed," Epstein said. "It's family-owned and operated. It's old-school. We know our customers. They've been coming for years, for generations. There's something really special about the El Cortez."

Epstein, now 27, was 23 when she managed the 2008 transformation of the El Cortez's overflow rooms at Ogden House into the Cabana Suites, a mod boutique hotel.

While she may have been viewed as just the owner's daughter when she took on the project, Epstein has proved herself an asset to the casino. She has overseen the property's remodeling efforts, including room renovations, an exterior paint job and the opening of a vintage Vegas lounge, the Parlour. Epstein has also steered the El Cortez toward deeper involvement with downtown redevelopment efforts. The property leased a nearby building to Jennifer and Michael Cornthwaite for the creative hub Emergency Arts, and hosted entrepreneurial events like Startup Weekend, film and design contests for local artists and the monthly Vegas StrEATs food truck festivals.

Epstein's latest project is Downtown Cares, a neighborhood philanthropy initiative co-sponsored by the El Cortez.

Question: What are you in charge of at the El Cortez?

Answer: It's evolved since I've been here.

My dad really wanted his kids to have a sense of how the business ran from all perspectives, so I worked in the casino cage, I did auditing, I've worked my way around here. My first big project was managing the Cabana Suites project. That was my role for a long time -- project management, project development.

It grew to include marketing. Being a family business, we don't really have departments. Our marketing department is me. Everybody's jobs are multifaceted.

Question: What has your experience been like as a 27-year-old female casino executive?

Answer: It's a challenge being a young girl coming into a place where most of these guys have been here longer than you've been alive and they just look at you like the owner's daughter. You feel like you have more to justify. It challenges you a little bit more, but it makes you a harder worker. You have to surpass everybody's expectations for you, because it's easy for people to have a preconceived notion.

With any industry you're going into if people have been working there for years and years and years, it's very easy to look at a newcomer and say, "You don't know. You haven't been here."

The only way you're going to change people's perceptions is by showing them that you can do that.

Question: How would you characterize the El Cortez's role in downtown redevelopment?

Answer: We're really uniquely positioned. We're the representation of the past meeting the future. We, as a gaming institution, kind of represent Las Vegas' traditional industry. We represent Las Vegas' past. Being a 70-year-old property with a lot of older customers, we represent that older side of Las Vegas.

But at the same time, we've been working for three, four, five years on renovating the property, doing different things outside of the box, investing millions before anybody was investing in downtown. We've been really collaborative with our neighbors. There's no purpose in doing anything alone.

Question: Are you involved in Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's Downtown Project or other efforts to bring new businesses downtown?

Answer: I'm not involved with the Downtown Project, but we work very closely with them. We work very closely with the startup and tech events, we hold them at our property. We work very closely with people coming in town, talk to them, (have) meetings. We're actively involved in recruiting people to the neighborhood and boosting its reputation. We want more people around here.

Question: There are two downtowns: the value-conscious gaming and tourism side and the local, artistic side. Is there tension between those two worlds?

Answer: I don't think Vegas has ever been about blending organically. There's no reason they can't coexist. The flashy downtown will always be the flashy downtown and the local, more organic, artsy downtown will continue to grow and expand into more of an urban experience. That's going to fit more seamlessly with the Symphony Park cultural corridor. It's going to grow around the Fremont Street Experience and down into the Arts District.

(The Fremont Street Experience) is going to draw its own crowd that wouldn't necessarily be drawn to East Fremont. It's only going to be a positive thing having those double populations coming down here. I'd rather have two distinct groups of people, which creates twice the amount of people coming down here.

Question: Are there any business you personally would like to see pop up around the El Cortez?

Answer: I'd love to see a Sunflower Market or a Trader Joe's. I'd love to have a cute little place where I can get my nails done after work. That would be great -- selfishly. More retail shops. That will bring more daytime crowds down here.

I'd love to see more food establishments where you could eat during the day and late at night. Le Thai is the best thing that's happened to downtown in the past year. Something like Le Thai would be great.

Question: Would you ever branch out and start your own side business downtown?

Answer: I don't know. I'm conservative that way. I get nervous.

Question: You spearheaded a downtown volunteer project called Downtown Cares late last year. How is that progressing?

Answer: Our first project in November was going to Robert Gordon Plaza, a senior center three blocks away, that really needed some TLC. We renovated their center. We thought it was going to be a one-time effort but we had such a great response and it was such a good project, we figured why not continue it throughout the course of the year?

What we're doing right now is coordinating a bar crawl through downtown to raise funds for our next project.

Contact reporter Caitlin McGarry at or 702-387-5273.