Carson an island of growth in Nevada gaming since the recession
Most of Nevada’s gaming industry was hard hit by the one-two punch of recession and Sept. 11, 2001.
Huge numbers of visitors stayed away from most markets, causing gaming win and room, food and beverage and entertainment revenues to drop dramatically.
But through it all, the Carson City area was an island of growth — seemingly untouched by and immune to the forces hammering the state industry.
In September 2001, terrorist attacks shut down flights to Las Vegas and canceled one of Reno’s biggest annual events, the National Championship Air Races.
Statewide gaming win, already flat from the growing economic slump, dropped more than 3 percent. That was followed by a 5 percent drop in October as the impact of the attacks took hold.
But Carson City and the surrounding area recorded a half-percent increase over the previous year that September and a 5.5 percent increase in October.
Even before 9/11, statewide numbers were flat or down for several months as the recession deepened. Yet Carson City reported a total of 17 monthly increases in a row.
Total win for Carson City in fiscal 2002 was 6.8 percent higher than in fiscal 2001 — $96.5 million. Statewide casino win dropped 3.7 percent for that same period. The Las Vegas Strip was down 7 percent, South Shore was down 3.1 percent, and Washoe County was down 5.8 percent for the year.
Other than Carson City, only the rapidly developing Boulder Strip and Elko, which receives most of its customers by car from Utah and Idaho, reported increases this past fiscal year.
“The big difference is that we depend, all of us here in town, strongly on our good local customers,” said Carson Nugget Manager Brian Smith.
Steve Bilyeu, CEO of the company that operates Pi-on Plaza and Carson Station; Dennis Small of Slot World; and Stacie Wilke, who manages the Carson Horseshoe, all agreed. Locals are the majority of their customers, and they cater to them.
“The only tourists we get are the ones that come with our regulars,” said Wilke. “Our tourists are, like, from Dayton.”
Small said Slot World’s typical tourist is probably someone visiting family in the area, rather than from the East Coast or another country. With no hotel rooms, he said nearly all his customers are locals.
“We consciously market to locals,” said Bilyeu. He said every casino property in the capital has been upgrading and adding to their property to attract locals.
“We continue to refurbish our properties, and that helps bring our locals back in.”
He said one of his most important attractions is the restaurant, which is newly remodeled.
Small said Slot World, too, has just finished a restaurant remodel — also with local customers in mind.
In order to attract a significant number of tourists, Bilyeu said a club needs hotel or motel rooms. Only the Nugget, Carson Station and Pi-on Plaza offer rooms.
Bilyeu said another reason the area escaped the economic damage suffered by Las Vegas and the rest of the state is that tourists who visit Carson City come by car or bus, not air.
That explains, in part, why the area didn’t lose customers after the airlines were shut down.
And it would help explain the drop last July when Highway 395 South was closed by forest fires along the Walker River for nearly a week.
Smith said the willingness of local casinos to work together to bring in more customers for all is also an important factor.
That is in contrast with, for example, the Reno area, where casinos operators have been accused of fighting with each other over customers, rather than trying to make the whole market grow.
With monthly meetings of the Carson City Gaming Association, Bilyeu said casino operators try work together.
“I think in Reno, anymore, they’re all working for themselves,” he said.
Bilyeu added that cooperation is probably helped because none of Carson City’s casinos have absentee corporate owners.
Small said that increases casinos’ involvement in the community: “We’ve all realized that anything positive for Carson is positive for us. I think everybody here is trying to be a good citizen.”