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Downtown’s Stevens part showman and successful casino operator

Derek Stevens could never pull off his antics if the privately held D Las Vegas were publicly traded.

The D's majority owner would have given the Securities and Exchange Commission fits with an in-house-produced video of a pseudo board of directors meeting posted to YouTube on Aug. 31. The video served as tease for the downtown resort's next-day announcement that it was adding a replica of Belgium's famous Manneken Pis statue to its Third Street entrance.

"We're creative, and we do a lot of spur-of-the-moment stuff," Stevens said in an interview after unveiling the 500-pound bronze knock-off of the "Little Man Pee" artwork that has graced Brussels since the 17th century.

What Stevens is doing is working.

Downtown Las Vegas gaming revenue is up 4.3 percent through July with increases in 10 of the last 12 months. Meanwhile, hotel occupancy has grown 1.8 percent this year.

The investment community took notice.

"We have been witnessing a clear renaissance taking shape in downtown," said Wells Fargo Securities gaming analyst Cameron McKnight.

Stevens, 47, is leading the revival. But he credits the rest of the downtown casino community.

"It's a combination of things happening downtown with all the operators," Stevens said. "I know our numbers, and it's good to be part of that growth."

He also credits the Downtown Project, which brought dozens of bars and restaurants to East Fremont Street. Stevens said D customers frequent those entertainment options while East Fremont customers visit the D.

"We see the connection happening now," Stevens said.

Stevens made his initial fortune in the automobile parts business in Michigan. He bought Fitzgerald's out of probate with his brother Greg in 2011. They re-created the property as the D and an homage to their hometown of Detroit, including outlets of American Coney Island and Joe Vicari's Andiamo Italian Steakhouse.

Three years earlier, the brothers acquired a 50 percent stake in the Golden Gate, which increased to 60 percent in 2009. Before breaking into downtown, Derek Stevens owned a piece of the Riviera.

Greg Stevens is an engineer by trade and somewhat shy. That's OK because Derek Stevens has enough media presence for two people.

He has transformed into a persona that is a part downtown Las Vegas historical gaming figures Benny Binion, Sam Boyd and Jackie Gaughan, coupled with the showmanship of Steve Wynn and Bob Stupak, while adding in 21st century technology.

Derek Stevens embraces social media. He has more than 20,000 followers on Twitter. He often use the Periscope application to offer a glimpse into his life, be it a busy night at the D's Long Bar or traveling in the D's stretch limousine with friends and customers to events, including the Electric Daisy Carnival.

Stevens has specially made colorful jackets for every occasion. What started on a whim has gotten out of hand, he admits. Stevens purchased three clothing racks to house the coats.

"I can't market the fact that I'm in the office reading spread sheets all day long," Stevens said. "I prefer to be on the casino floor meeting people and shaking hands. I love the social media element because it creates connections. Downtown is entrepreneurial and allows you some freedom."

Stevens also makes national headlines. When NFL replacement referees messed up the end of a Green Bay Packers-Seattle Seahawks Monday night football game in 2012, he refunded the losing wagers. Earlier this year, Stevens stood to make $1 million on a $20,000 personal bet if Michigan State had won the NCAA men's basketball championship.

"I'm the easiest guy when it comes to PR," Stevens said. "Our team is very creative."

The two-minute video "board meeting" was shot in few hours. It included the D's scantily clad Party Pit dealers, a security guard twirling his revolver, juggling bartenders and a late-arriving hot dog mascot "Conney D." Stevens was shown marching through the casino in a bright yellow jacket, carrying the hotel's flag to greet the property's newest "entertainer."

The stunt attracted more than a dozen cameras and media to the midday Manneken Pis event. Mayor Carolyn Goodman and former Mayor Oscar Goodman also attended.

Stevens is bullish on downtown. In 2013, he bought the former Clark County Courthouse for $10 million and converted the nearly 3-acre site into an outdoor concert venue.

Last month, Stevens bought the Las Vegas Club for an undisclosed price. He said it will take until the end of October or longer to determine how much of the now-closed 400-room hotel-casino can be salvaged. He would like to add to the 750 rooms he controls between the D and Golden Gate, but Stevens hasn't set a timeline.

"We're in the hotel-casino business," Stevens said. "Downtown needs more high-quality hotel rooms and more big events."

Howard Stutz's Inside Gaming column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Find on Twitter: @howardstutz.

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