11/21/2003 1:00AM

Going after locals - wherever they are


Las Vegas is actually two cities.

The most famous is America's adult playground, which attracts millions of tourists to the Las Vegas Strip.

The other is the sprawling line of suburbs that surround the Strip.

Each city has its own collection of casinos - the Strip casinos aimed at tourists and the suburban casinos aimed at local residents - and the locals market has been booming.

The locals' resorts offer down-home comfort and the familiarity of a convenient casino right down the street - not down the Strip. They are neighborhood places to play.

Like McDonalds, which has spread the golden arches to almost every town in the country, the gaming giants that operate the locals' casinos of Las Vegas are set to bring their brand of hospitality to a location near you, with the help of Native Americans.

Within the last 10 days, local giants Station Casinos and Coast Casinos have entered into separate deals to manage Indian gaming properties outside the Silver State.

Station Casinos will develop and manage a casino for a western Michigan Indian Tribe federally recognized as the Gun Lake Tribe. The proposed Gun Lake project would mark Station's first casino east of the Mississippi.

The deal calls for Station to advance the tribe between $10 million and $15 million to buy the land and for other development costs and to spend up to $200 million to build and manage a casino that will have as many as 2,500 slot machines and 75 table games. Of course, the staples of Station's local success - a wide-variety buffet and restaurants that also offer entertainment - will also be incorporated into the property. Under the seven-year agreement, Station would receive 50 percent of the first $24 million earned each year, 83 percent of the next $24 million, and 93 percent in excess of $48 million.

Station Casino's first Indian gaming venture is already surpassing projections. Station is expected to make as much as $75 million from the first year operation of Thunder Valley, a complex located near Sacramento, Calif., and managed by Station for the United Auburn Indians.

Coast Casinos, which in March will break ground on the $350 million South Coast - its fifth Las Vegas locals' casino - took a 75 percent stake in a proposed Indiana casino project, the company announced on Wednesday. Coast Casinos chairman Michael Gaughan was persuaded to enter the deal by former NBA basketball star Larry Bird. Bird, a partner in Orange County Development LLC, called Gaughan and asked him to be the lead for the group's effort in gaining a casino license to operate a casino near the towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs, in Orange County, Ind. Gaughan did not say how much he paid for a 75 percent stake in the Orange County Development, but he did say that the cost of the casino complex would be between $60 million and $70 million. Although the casinos will be located in an area experiencing hard times, Gaughan said the place will be a "locals'" casino.

Coast Casinos, like Station Casinos, has used its successful formula to expand in the Las Vegas locals market, first branching out more than 20 years ago from its original property, the Barbary Coast, and building the Gold Coast casino.

There is no better example of Coast Casinos' impact in Las Vegas than its entry a few years ago into the Summerlin market, a master-planned suburb of Las Vegas.

Adjacent to the magnificent Resort at Summerlin, and built at half the cost, Coast Casinos' Suncoast complex helped push its more opulent neighbor into bankruptcy. While the Suncoast flourished with wall-to-wall customers, you could have fired a shotgun through the Resort at Summerlin without hitting anyone. The Resort at Summerlin has changed hands and is now doing well after revamping and targeting the locals market. The Suncoast continues to expand.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.