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Casino MonteLago reopens at Lake Las Vegas

People browse the streets of MonteLago Village during the grand reopening of Casino MonteLago at Lake Las Vegas on Thursday, May 26, 2011.

Casino MonteLago Reopens

Fireworks explode over MonteLago Village during the grand re-opening of the Casino MonteLago at Lake Las Vegas Thursday, May 26, 2011.   
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VEGAS INC coverage

It was a Las Vegas scene, circa 2007: Too many people, too few gambling machines and too few parking spaces for the throng of people on hand for what might be the only major casino opening of 2011.

After 14 months of darkness, Casino MonteLago — the social hub of the Lake Las Vegas golf resort community — reopened at 9 p.m. Thursday to a burst of fireworks.

The small casino closed in March 2010, a victim of the battered economy in a challenging Henderson location some 20 miles from the Strip. Despite a local economy still in the dumps, a new management team expects to do better by operating lean, with fewer gambling machines and employees.

But Thursday night, there were smiles all around — and the kind of gambling action casinos dream of. Shortly after the doors opened, customers stood two deep, waiting for one of the 275 slot machines or seven electronic table games to open up.

The casino's winery decor looks much the same as before, but with a twist: There are no live dealers dealing cards or spinning roulette wheels, only machines programmed to do so - among several moves to lower labor costs.

Henderson resident Nancy Almanzan doesn't play blackjack but is trying her luck in front of an electronic blackjack game tonight, hitting buttons to "hit", "stand" and "double down."

“It’s nice to come out here and relax and not be on the Strip,” said Almanzan, 45. “We used to come out here two or three times a week when the casino was open but not as much since it closed. I like the ambience, the village atmosphere.”

Roy Alexander drove all the way from central Las Vegas for the opening.

“We used to come down here for live music on weekends. I’d definitely come down here again now that the casino is open,” said Alexander, 65.

As customers of the casino when it was under previous management, he and his wife received an offer to stay at the attached Ravella hotel.

“We would have rented a room this weekend had we received the notice earlier. We’ll probably be back,” though, he said.

While playing roulette, Lin Meriage was effusive about the opening, saying she and her husband had been looking forward to it since the property closed last year.

Meriage, a retiree and full-time resident of Lake Las Vegas, said there were still enough attractions to keep the resort community going, including seven restaurants that remained open over the past year. Still, the casino was a badly needed attraction, she said.

“We’re thrilled,” said Meriage, 67.

Hopefully, the casino will stay open for fans of the Tuscan-themed property located in a faux Italian village of cobblestone walkways, quaint restaurants and boutique shops and alongside a 320-acre man-made lake.

Critics believed the small surrounding population doomed the 40,000 square-foot casino from the start.

CEO Jon Berkley disagrees, saying the casino’s biggest problem was its heavy debt burden — now wiped away in the ownership transfer to lenders.

A significant though lesser problem for previous management, he said, was a marketing issue with the former Ritz-Carlton hotel next door.

The finely-appointed hotel, which did little to market the attached casino to guests, was simply too expensive for locals, he said.

“When a room at the Ritz costs $300, no one could afford a staycation here,” he said.

That’s changed now that the renamed hotel, Ravella, reopened in February under new management. The luxury hotel — which left the rooms and meeting space untouched but has brightened the lobby and other public areas with more colorful and less formal décor — is selling four-star accommodations at two- and three-star prices.

The property is offering a promotional rate of $49 per night through June 12, and has recently dropped regular rates for Nevada residents to $59 from $80 through Labor Day. Rates top out at about $130, undercutting rates charged by other luxury hotels in town.

Staycations are a key marketing strategy for the hotel, which gets a significant chunk of business from locals seeking a quick getaway, said Marty Bertone, Ravella’s director of sales and marketing and a former Ritz-Carlton manager in Phoenix.

“Our locals rate has done extremely well,” he said.

Likewise, the casino will depend on locals rather than out-of-towners.

Rather than simply drawing from Lake Las Vegas or Henderson, the casino hopes to attract residents from all over the Las Vegas Valley to stay at Lake Las Vegas, Berkley said.

“We didn’t invent the staycation, but I think we’ve perfected it,” he said. “From your house in Summerlin, 30 minutes away, you can be transported to another place entirely... a village that looks like something you’d find on the Amalfi Coast.”

For her part, 71-year-old Laura Velgos is sold on Lake Las Vegas. She and friend Frank Black, 73, nosed around some shops in the village while waiting for tonight’s casino crowd to dissipate.

“This feels like Europe. It’s like being on vacation,” said Velgos, a 43-year Las Vegas resident who visited Lake Las Vegas regularly until the casino closed.

“You can’t find a machine in there, it’s so crowded. We waited 30 minutes and then came out here,” said Black, who lives in Boulder City. “But we love this place.”

They won so much money from the casino that they probably helped it close down, Black joked.

Well, they didn’t really win, but they enjoyed themselves, which is why they are back, enjoying a nighttime stroll underneath the string lights in the faux European village.

“We’re here to win back all that money we lost,” he said with a laugh.

Jonathan Gomez doesn’t mind the long drive from his home in northwest Las Vegas to his job as a line cook at Harry’s restaurant inside the casino.

“It’s worth it for the opportunity,” said Gomez, a recent culinary school graduate. “It’s a great feeling to be employed. And this is such a nice place.”

Gomez said the casino should prosper given enough publicity.

“A lot of people don’t know about the place. I’ve told people, what a nice place to take a girlfriend.”

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