weather icon Clear

Derek Stevens integral to downtown revival

If Tony Hsieh is the savior of downtown Las Vegas, then Derek Stevens is at least the savior of Fremont Street.

Not to take anything away from Hsieh. The Zappos CEO has a vision. Through the privately funded $350 million Downtown Project, Hsieh seeks to revitalize Las Vegas’ core community.

Stevens, 45, a Michigan native, had his own vision. In a matter of five years, he transformed two aging hotel — the Golden Gate and the D Las Vegas — into entertainment and gambling attractions that have renewed portions of Fremont Street and given downtown additional character.

David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, points out that Stevens accomplished the task without high-priced consultants or focus groups.

Stevens spent time with his customers. He asked their opinions of what they wanted in a casino. He also wanted to know what amenities turned them off.

Oftentimes, he would buy them a drink.

“Being able to tell their friends that the owner bought them a beer will make Stevens’ casinos plenty of fans,” Schwartz said.

In a way, Stevens is a throwback to historical downtown casinos owners, such as Benny Binion and Jack Binion, Sam Boyd and Bill Boyd, and Jackie Gaughan.

But that’s just Stevens’ personality.

“That’s why I built The Longbar,” Stevens said of the D’s signature centerpiece 100-foot-long bar that has 15 flat-screen televisions tuned to sporting events, often featuring Detroit or Michigan teams.

“This is what I kind of dreamed about putting in my basement, only it wouldn’t fit,” Stevens said. “That’s who I am. I like to talk with the customers.”

When he first took over the 640-room hotel-casino known as Fitzgeralds, patrons would ask bartenders or dealers if Stevens really was the owner.

After 16 months, that question is no longer needed.

“I think we’ve done a good job here,” he said.


Stevens’ manner and attitude are what one might expect from a casino owner who made his initial financial claim in the automobile parts business in Michigan.

He often visited Las Vegas and made investments in several gaming companies. Stevens still owns a small percentage of the Riviera.

He viewed downtown, however, as opportunity.

He and his brother Greg purchased the Las Vegas 51s minor league baseball team in 2008 and sought to either rebuild Cashman Field or build a new stadium downtown.

But his interests turned to gaming. (Stevens sold the Las Vegas 51s to new ownership on May 13 for $20 million).

Also in 2008, the Stevens brothers bought a 50 percent ownership in the 106-room Golden Gate. The stake was increased to 60 percent a year later.

In 2012, the Golden Gate spent $12 million on a casino renovation and a five-story hotel tower expansion that added 14 suites and two penthouses.

Derek Stevens saw Fitzgeralds, which was in probate court following the death of owner Don Barden, as another opportunity. The Stevens brothers bought the hotel in 2011 for an undisclosed price.

After 16 months and $22 million in renovations, the renamed D is a centerpiece of downtown’s revitalization.

Derek Stevens is the operator. Greg Stevens, an engineer by trade, is the behind-the-scenes guy.

“He’s more comfortable in a crawl space or on the roof trying to make things work,” Derek Stevens said.

The D is an entirely new resort from top to bottom, including remodeled rooms, a reconfigured two-level casino, and new restaurants, including Michigan staple American Coney Island and Andiamo Italian Steakhouse, which is operated by Detroit restaurateur Joe Vicari.

Which brings us to a point — the D Las Vegas is not a Detroit-themed hotel-casino, but it’s a tribute to the Stevens’ hometown.

“There was controversy about the name,” Derek Stevens said. “The name doesn’t produce profit. It’s the success of the property that makes the name.”

The rebranding of the Fitzgeralds into the D Las Vegas gave the ownership some coverage back in the Motor City. And, with up to eight airline flights a day arriving at McCarran International Airport from Detroit, Stevens hopes some those passengers might make their way downtown.


Derek Stevens wanted his casinos to be lively, play loud music and have energy. He created a buzz with the casino changes, but also added a vintage gaming machine section to the D’s second floor. Most of the slot machines still accept coins. The casino bought and restored an old Sigma Derby Horse Racing machine.

The idea, Derek Stevens said, was to give loyal Fitzgeralds’ customers a reason to frequent the D, even after the property began skewing toward a younger audience.

That’s why on a Monday afternoon in May, the D’s casino was hopping.

Schwartz, who is impressed by Stevens operating style, said changes at the D Las Vegas are helping to lift the market. In March, gaming revenues downtown grew 5.3 percent following a 2.5 percent increase in 2012.

“At both the Golden Gate and the D, he’s made changes, like the outdoor bars and dancing dealers, that have pumped up the energy level and made the places stand out,” Schwartz said. “Along with the changes at the Plaza and Golden Nugget and the back-to-basics approach of the El Cortez, they’ve given downtown a real identity outside of ‘less expensive than the Strip.’ ”

Derek Stevens said after what seemed like 16 months of continuous construction, the D Las Vegas is fully operational. The opening of the Andiamo Italian Steakhouse gave the D a high-end dining spot that was lacking. The Scintas are debuting this week in the property’s remodeled theater.

There is more Stevens would like to add to the D, but he wants to catch his breath.

“We now just want to operate the property and go from there,” said Stevens, who also spends half of his time at Golden Gate.

Stevens is close with other downtown casino operators, partly because of the joint ownership of the Fremont Street Experience, but also because they are committed to bringing more visitors downtown.

He is also close with Hsieh.

Stevens and Hsieh found themselves dining in the same downtown Las Vegas restaurant recently.

“We talk all the time,” Stevens said. “He’s going to bring more business downtown.”

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Business Videos
How much do Las Vegas casino CEOs make?
Las Vegas gaming CEOs made anywhere between $1 million and $24 million last year, according to company filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. ((Las Vegas Review-Journal)
30-year-old Rio needs a little TLC
Nearly 30 years after the Rio opened, the red and blue jewel that helped catapult Las Vegas to a new level with its buffet and nightclub has lost its status along with its shine.
The latest on the Drew Las Vegas - VIDEO
Eli Segall recounts his tour of the Drew Las Vegas, formerly the Fontainebleau, on the Las Vegas Strip. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pinball Hall of Fame to move near south Strip
Operators of the Pinball Hall of Fame have been approved to build a new, larger arcade near the south edge of the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard near Russel Road. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
National Hardware Show underway Las Vegas
The National Hardware Show kicked off Tuesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Caesars for sale?
Caesars Entertainment Corp. has been swept up in takeover speculation since the company’s share price tumbled last year amid disappointing earnings and concerns over a recession. Amid the decline, hedge funds scooped up shares. Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn began buying shares of Caesars as early as January. Icahn acquired nearly 18 percent by mid-March. In February Icahn called on the Caesars board to study a sale as a way to boost shareholder value.
Las Vegas home prices
Las Vegas home prices grew fastest among major markets in February for the ninth straight month. But amid affordability concerns, the growth rate has slowed down. Southern Nevada prices in February were up 9.7% from a year earlier, according to the latest S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index. The last time Las Vegas' price growth fell below 10% was in September 2017, S&P Dow Jones Indices reported.
Free Parking Coming To Wynn
Free parking will come to the Wynn and Encore resorts on May 1, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Founding Venetian employees talk about 20 years at the Strip resort
The Venetian, which opened May 3, 1999, is celebrating 20 years on the Las Vegas Strip. Seven original employees talk about opening the luxury resort and working there for two decades. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Circa aiming for December 2020 opening
The 1.25-million-square-foot property will have 44-stories and 777-rooms. It will also have a separate nine-story, 1,201-space parking garage.
Boxabl official explains the building concept
Boxabl business development manager Galiano Tiramani shows off a room built by his company. (Blake Apgar/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
TI/Mirage Tram reopens
The tram that shuttles guests between TI and Mirage reopened this week after being closed for much of 2018.
Las Vegas Convention Center expansion taking shape
Renderings and actual footage show how the Las Vegas Convention Center is evolving.
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz at Las Vegas convention
Former Starbucks CEO and potential presidential candidate Howard Schultz spoke at the Epicor Insights user conference at Mandalay Bay Convention Center Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Drew Las Vegas to open in the second quarter of 2022
The 67-story Drew Las Vegas is slated to open in the second quarter of 2022 at the north end of the Las Vegas Strip. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NAB Day 1 (Time Lapse)
NAB kicked off at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, April 8, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
National Association of Broadcasters Show shows 1mm thick 8K TV with 22.2 channel digital sound
Japan’s NHK Science & Technology Research Laboratories booth featured a 1mm thick 8K TV system used in conjunction with a 22.2 channel digital sound system at the National Association of Broadcasters Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Nevada shoppers react to Smith’s no longer accepting Visa credit cards
On March 1, Smith’s announced that it would no longer be accepting Visa credit cards at any of its 142 supermarkets, including the 45 in Nevada.
Massachusetts Gaming Commission asks how long Wynn executives knew about misconduct
Business reporter Rick Velotta gives an update on the adjudicatory hearing on the suitability of Wynn Resorts to retain its gaming license in Massachusetts.
Henderson app developer part of Startup in Residence
Henderson based developers of the app On Point Barricade are taking part in Startup in Residence, a North America program dedicated to pairing tech companies with governments. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Sam's Town employees and customers talk of their love for the iconic casino
Longtime Sam's Town employees and customers love each other and love their casino. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas apartments rents
Las Vegas’ apartment market has accelerated in recent years. Developers are packing the suburbs with projects, landlords are on a buying spree, and tenants have filled buildings.
William Boyd talks about the birth of Sam's Town
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of Sam's Town, William Boyd, executive chairman of Boyd Gaming and son of hotel namesake Sam Boyd, talks about how the casino became one of the first local properties in Las Vegas. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
High Roller observation wheel turns five
The world’s tallest observation wheel celebrates it’s fifth year on Sunday, March 31, 2019. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Escape Room Industry Growing In Las Vegas
Escapology employees discuss the growing escape room industry in the U.S. and Las Vegas. (Bailey Schulz/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Impact of parking fees on visiting the Las Vegas Strip
There are no data showing a relationship between Strip resort and parking fees and the number of out-of-state visitors to Las Vegas. But there are data showing a relationship between Strip parking fees and the number of local visitors to the the Strip. ‘’As a local, I find myself picking hotels I visit for dinner or entertainment, based on whether they charge for parking or not,”’ said David Perisset, the owner of Exotics Racing. ‘’It is not a matter of money, more of principle.’’ A 2018 survey by the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance found 36.9 percent of Clark County residents reported avoiding parking at Strip casinos that charge for parking. 29.1 percent reported avoiding using any services from a Strip casino that charges for parking.
MGM's sports betting deals
MGM Resorts International signed a sports betting sponsorship agreement with the NBA in July It was the first professional sports league to have official ties with a legal sports betting house. The deal came just two months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law prohibiting sports betting in most states. In October, MGM became the first gaming company to sign a sports betting partnership with the NHL. In November, MGM became the first gaming company to sign a sports betting partnership with the MLB. Financial terms of Tuesday’s deal and earlier partnerships have not been announced.
Faraday puts Las Vegas land on the market
Nearly two years after Faraday Future bailed on its North Las Vegas auto factory, the company has put its land up for sale. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
El Cortez owner Kenny Epstein on running the iconic property
Kenny Epstein, owner of the El Cortez Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, talks about Jackie Gaughan mentorship and answers rumors about bodies in the basement at the mob-era casino. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
LVCVA recommends construction of underground people mover
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced the recommendation for an underground people mover for the convention center. The system would have the potential to expand and connect Downtown and the resort corridor all the way to McCarran. (Michael Quine/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Lucky Dragon’s foreign investors demand refund

The Lucky Dragon’s developers and prior management are facing lawsuits from Chinese investors, the project’s main lender and a Canadian high-roller who paid a $400,000 deposit to lease the casino just one month before it abruptly closed.