03/05/2004 12:00AM

Gaming Control Board aproves new licenses

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As promised, the Nevada Gaming Control Board met last Wednesday to fast forward approvals of two new casino operators for downtown Las Vegas.

MTR Gaming Group, the parent company of Mountaineer Race Track in Chester, W. Va., was approved to buy Binion's Horseshoe casino.

Also, Barrick Gaming Corp. was approved to purchase four downtown casinos from gaming icon Jackie Gaughan. They are the Plaza, the Las Vegas Club, the Gold Spike, and the Western Hotel. Some final paperwork will need to be filed in about two weeks at the next gaming board meeting to close the deal.

The NGCB may have cut a few corners to expedite the process, but as chairman Dennis Neilander told the media, "A lot of what we're doing is on the fly here, but I thought it was worth giving it a try."

At stake, in particular, is the reopening of Binion's Horseshoe, which has been closed since Jan. 9. Harrah's had stepped in to buy the landmark casino from former owner Becky Binion Behnen. What Harrah's prized most are the brand name "Horseshoe" and the world famous World Series of Poker that is held annually in April at Binion's Horseshoe.

Because the World Series is tentatively scheduled to begin on April 23, a target date of April 1 was established to reopen the casino.

Harrah's had no interest in operating a downtown casino and is happy to find a qualified buyer in MTR. However, the deal moved so quickly that MTR needed help during the transition phase. So Harrah's was contracted to operate Binion's Horseshoe for one year, at which time MTR will install its own management team and business plan.

The NGCB has been sensitive to the fact that the closure of Binion's Horseshoe put more than 900 Las Vegans out of work. Also, the casino is an anchor tenant in the Fremont Street Experience, and it's not healthy to have a shuttered facility.

Barrick Gaming owners David Barrick and Stephen Crystal unveiled grandiose plans for the redevelopment of the Plaza, its surrounding seven acres, and the three other aging casinos. For example, their plans for the Western Hotel are to make it a Latino destination resort. The executives said their project would cost "hundreds of millions of dollars."

There are still unanswered questions, such as the final financing package to pay for the overhaul, but the energy and commitment from new ownership to rebuild downtown Las Vegas was not lost upon the NGCB.

There appears to be a movement afoot toward the gentrification of downtown Las Vegas, and the start may have had nothing to do with a casino. Owner John Crofts invested $5.5 million to build the Ice House, an upscale restaurant and bar located on Main Street between Garces and Bonneville avenues.

If you've never seen the Ice House, it looks like someone transplanted a trendy art-deco nightclub from South Beach in Miami, and placed it squarely one block south of the Plaza.

Gentrification is a term used by urban planners to define the makeover of a city's downtown core. What occurs in urban areas is that cities grow from the inside out. As a city's core ages, its citizens will flee to the suburbs to escape urban blight. As prices in the suburbs go higher and higher, the property downtown gets devalued.

At some point, developers then will invest back into downtown because it is so inexpensive. That eventually attracts people and businesses to return to the core. It's happened time and time again in major U.S. cities, so maybe the timing is right now for it to begin here in Las Vegas.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Radio Show.