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Back to a family fold in Primm

In a way, the three casinos in Primm have returned to their roots.

Herbst Gaming completed its $400 million acquisition Tuesday of Whiskey Pete’s, Primm Valley hotel and Buffalo Bill’s at the Nevada-California border from MGM Mirage, a deal originally announced in November. The ownership transfer took place shortly after midnight.

The casinos, which were founded, built and operated on Interstate 15 about 40 miles south of Las Vegas by the pioneering Primm family before being purchased in 1999 by the then MGM Grand Corp., are once again under a family ownership.

Herbst Gaming is privately held and operated by brothers Ed, Tim and Troy Herbst. The company is part of the Herbst Oil Co., founded by the brothers’ grandfather, Ed Herbst. Jerry Herbst, the brothers’ father, is chairman of Terrible Herbst.

Although Herbst Gaming has grown substantially since its beginnings as a slot route operator, that the company is family owned was not lost on many of the Primm casinos’ 3,000 employees, including about 700 who have worked at the properties since they were owned by the Primm family.

“I think being a smaller company, they will have a lot more concern about these casinos and they will put something into it and care a little bit more about the staff,” said Christian Cloutier, a bartender the past two years at Buffalo Bill’s. “I worked for a big company back in California and I think you’re treated much better by a smaller company.”

Cloutier and other Primm employees had done their homework on Herbst Gaming since the deal was approved by gaming regulators last month. The Primm casinos will become the flagship of the company, which operates 16 casinos in Nevada, Missouri and Iowa along with an 8,400-machine slot route operation.

“We’re much more important to Herbst and I think they will put a lot of effort into the casinos,” Cloutier said.

Cocktail waitress Mia Hopkins, who has worked at Buffalo Bill’s for four years, said she is looking forward to the changes Herbst Gaming might bring.

“I like it here and I think it will nice to be the biggest casino in the company,” Hopkins said.

Joe Zanelli, the vice president of casino operations for the three resorts, has spent 11 years in Primm. He thought the ownership change will give new life to the properties, which total 2,642 rooms, 137,000 square feet of casino space, 2,816 slot machines, 93 gaming tables, three gas stations and a convenience store.

“We’re a destination resort on to ourselves,” Zanelli said. “MGM (Mirage) was a great company, but it’s going to be much more like a family owned business now. We know that (Herbst) is going to want to focus on what we have here and do things that will only make these properties better.”

The deal also includes the 6,000-seat Star of the Desert Arena at Buffalo Bill’s, but not the Primm Valley Golf Club, which covers 573 acres just over the border in California. MGM Mirage will continue to own the two 18-hole courses, but Herbst Gaming will manage the club.

The transaction is the second major purchase this year by Herbst Gaming. In January, the company spent $119 million to buy four Northern Nevada casinos.

The three Primm properties had become a secondary market to MGM Mirage, which focused its efforts on its 10 Strip casinos and larger developments, such as building the $7 billion Project CityCenter.

An increasing number of American Indian casinos in Southern California have attracted Primm customers from San Bernardino County, causing cash flow to fall almost 60 percent at the casinos since 2000.

Ed Herbst said he and his brothers see potential for the Primm casinos to expand their customer base, especially to a Las Vegas audience.

“Primm is not that far a commute any more, especially from the southern part of the valley,” Herbst said. “The Terrible Herbst service stations have about 100,000 customers a day and we’ll be reaching out to them.”

He said the Herbst Gaming wants to run casinos much like the Primm family once did.

Following a short ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Buffalo Bill’s porte cochere attended by family members, company executives and Primm employees, Herbst said the focus will be on adding the casinos into the company’s portfolio.

“We’ve always admired these locations and how the Primm family operated them,” Herbst said. “I think they fit perfectly with the Terrible Herbst brand. We see the value in the name and the properties.”

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