Foundation keeps memories alive of casino founder who excelled after accident

Craig Neilsen spent parts of three decades building Ameristar Casinos, the majority of which was accomplished after he was rendered a quadriplegic in a 1985 car accident.

Yet, the creation of a multibillion-dollar hotel-casino corporation will be just part of his legacy.

Neilsen, founder, chairman and CEO of Ameristar, died at age 65 in 2006.

Three years earlier, he established the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation. The philanthropic organization is dedicated to funding programs supporting spinal cord injury research and rehabilitation.

It is now funded beyond anyone’s imagination.

Per his wishes, Neilsen’s 55 percent ownership stake in Ameristar was transferred to the foundation following his death. In 2011, the foundation sold 83 percent of the stock back to Ameristar for $457.6 million. The remaining shares were liquidated between 2011 and 2012.

As a company, Ameristar has gone away. The regional gaming operator was acquired by rival Pinnacle Entertainment earlier this month for $2.8 billion.

Neilsen’s memory, however, lives through the foundation.

Ray Neilsen believes his father would be happy to know the foundation is able to fund groundbreaking spinal cord injury research and treatment programs, and training doctors in spinal cord injury care.

The foundation also branched into funding psycho-social programs that offer spinal cord injury patients, who are living longer, the necessary tools to lead productive lives.

Beth Goldsmith, the foundation’s executive director since its outset, said Neilsen’s vision has become the largest private funder of spinal cord injury research in the world.

Ray Neilsen said the foundation reflects his father’s focus and passion.

“The foundation was very important to him when he was alive,” Ray Neilsen said. “Now, we can carry it forward.”

In 1984, Craig Neilsen, a Twin Falls, Idaho, attorney who oversaw his family’s construction and real estate development firm, took full control of the family’s other business interests in two small casinos in the Nevada community of Jackpot.

A year later, he was driving from Jackpot to Twin Falls when the car accident occurred during a snowstorm on a mountain road.

The car crash left Neilsen without the use of his extremities from the neck down. It took away his ability to accomplish the simplest tasks we take for granted.

But it didn’t take away his mind.

“The best quote I love about my dad described him as someone with ‘his body being damaged but his mind was a triathlete,’ ” Ray Neilsen said.

Craig Neilsen’s thoughts concerning Ameristar remained in constant motion.

Instead of working 50 to 60 hours a week on building the casino company, he spent all waking hours around the clock envisioning and planning Ameristar’s growth and expansion.

By 1986, he bought out the remaining shareholders in the Jackpot casinos. In 1993, he took Ameristar public, opening a casino in Vicksburg, Miss., which began the company’s rapid growth.

Wall Street embraced Neilsen’s creativity. The company’s annual financial reports reflected a desire to think outside the box. Ameristar’s 2004 annual report resembled an issue of Rolling Stone magazine, complete with fake advertisements and a cover photo of a Marilyn Monroe look-alike blanketed in a red bathtub with $500 and $100 Ameristar casino chips.

The American Gaming Association named Neilsen the industry’s Best Performing CEO in 2002. He was inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame in 2005.

At the time of his death, Ameristar operated hotel-casinos in five states. When it was sold, Ameristar had eight properties, and one casino under development, in seven states.

Many of the important Ameristar decisions took place inside a specially equipped bedroom of Neilsen’s custom-designed, 6,200-square-foot home in the Canyon Gate Country Club.

The house, which he purchased in 1996, was retrofitted to include a specially designed backyard, two elevators and floor-to-ceiling glass to maximize his view.

Craig Neilsen’s personal drive also led to some quirkiness. He was legendary in the gaming industry for calling 2 a.m. meetings with company officials in his bedroom when an idea struck him.

His mind was always engaged with the business of Ameristar.

“He was focused on building quality for the long term,” Ray Neilsen said. “He didn’t focus on quarterly results. He wanted to build the best assets in every market for long-term profitability.”

Ray Neilsen, 48, who earned a degree in history from the College of Idaho, harbored dreams of becoming an importer of Russian artifacts. He eventually ended up in the family business in the early 1990s. But he didn’t start out at the top.

He lived in a hotel room at Cactus Pete’s in Jackpot and bused tables in the property’s restaurants for more than a year.

He also worked in the warehouse and handled other functions. His father paid him an annual salary of $20,000.

“It helped me understand the inner-workings of the business and that was important to my dad,” he said.

Ray Neilsen eventually took on management of the casinos in Jackpot, eventually becoming general manager.

He was also general manager of Ameristar Council Bluffs in Iowa and Ameristar Vicksburg in Mississippi.

He became co-chairman of Ameristar when his father died. Later, he became chairman. He left the company in 2011 to focus his efforts on his father’s foundation.

As a company, Ameristar created charitable programs to help the communities where the casinos operated.

In Vicksburg, Ameristar created a program to help employees who had not earned a high school diploma complete their GED certificates.

Ray Neilsen has since expanded the program beyond the casino to all adults in Warren County, Miss.

“Ameristar was profitable, and now those profits can work to make a difference,” Ray Neilsen said.

Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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