Las Vegas — In Sin City, there are two distinct districts.
There’s The Strip, which, for decades, has been the place to be and to be seen — with all its glitz and glamour, fountains and indoor gondola rides.
Then there’s Downtown, or old Las Vegas, which was the place to be in the days of the Rat Pack. More recently, it’s been the destination for stretching your buck — on, say, cheap blackjack, booze, strippers and deep-fried Oreos.
Downtown’s reputation, however, continues to narrow the destination gap, thanks to two Detroiters — OK, technically, Grosse Pointers — the Stevens brothers.
The oldest, Derek, got his first job as a valet along the Detroit River. He did that for three years.
“That’s where I started learning some street hustle,” Derek said during an interview on Fremont Street, Downtown’s main thoroughfare.
“I got a charge out of making a buck tip. That’s where it started.”
Here’s where it’s taken him: At 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the Stevens’ latest venture, Circa Resort & Casino Las Vegas, will open its doors to the public. Its the Stevens’ third casino — they own The D and Golden Gate, also Downtown — and their first-ever ground-up venture. Circa is the first ground-up casino to open in Downtown since Sundance (now The D) in 1980, and the first anywhere in Las Vegas since Aria in 2009.
The project is nearly five years in the making, with the Stevens buying up multiple properties — including the Las Vegas Club (claim to fame: it had the first neon sign in a city now full of them), Mermaid’s (those Oreos, yo), La Bayou, Glitter Gulch (girls), a T-shirt store and an office building — since 2015, to make way for Downtown’s most Strip-like casino. Circa will feature the largest sportsbook in the world, complete with a three-story TV; an amphitheater-style, three-level pool; the high-tech, ride-share-friendly Garage Mahal; and, eventually, 777 hotel rooms and suites.
Circa is 35 stories and 500 feet tall, easily the largest building in Downtown. It’s taller than some of The Strip’s most-iconic properties, like Venetian. It’d be the fifth-tallest building in Detroit.
The Circa project, including six property acquisitions and construction, which began in February 2019, has easily cost several hundred million dollars. The Stevens brothers, though, run a private firm, so they don’t disclose their costs or their net worth.
Rolling the dice
The first thing you notice about the Stevens brothers, Derek and Greg, is they’re not much alike. And that’s also the best thing about them. They complement each other.
Derek is a numbers guy — an ideal trait for running a business where the numbers are large — and the ultimate people person. When Derek visits his suite at Little Caesars Arena, he’s usually surrounded by an entourage. When Greg visits the same suite, he’s rarely recognized by suite hosts as one of the Stevens brothers until the end of the night, when he shows his credit card to pay the bill. Derek and wife Nicole have their own, personalized seats and slots at the Longbar at The D, and Derek is there nearly every night, greeting customers and often buying them drinks. Greg goes home at night.
Derek is the face of the company, he films ads, gives speeches, publicizes his big sports bets, and appears on “Pawn Stars.” It was Derek who came up with the idea to buy free flights to Vegas for customers as the city was getting ready to reopen again amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At Circa, there’s a life-size LEGO statue of Derek. If they made one of Greg, nobody would know who it was. The spotlight suits Derek like his massive, glitzy sportcoat collection — they take up a full garage — and Greg prefers it that way.
“That’s why the two of us have worked so well together over the years,” said Greg, 49, while acknowledging he used to get quite nervous in high school, at Grosse Pointe South, when he’d have to give a speech in front of the class. “That skill set for him is certainly better than mine. He’s got a little better vision for business and marketing.
“He lends himself to the front of the house. I’m behind the scenes. My value is making sure everything’s running like a top.
“Derek has the main floor. You can find me in the basement and on the roof making sure the lights are on and the beer is cold — very specifically, 33 degrees.”
The brothers came out to Las Vegas in 2006, moving their investment business there — Derek had always liked Vegas, from long, leisurely weekends (he often came out for the big boxing matches) to work conventions. It’s a party, and he’s the life of the party.
By 2008, they were ready to make a big investment of their own — buying a 50% stake in Golden Gate. It was right around the time of the Great Recession, and interestingly, that’s what allowed them to afford their stake.
In 2011, they bought Fitzgerald’s, and in 2012 rebranded it The D. Asked what The D stands for, he’s coy. There’s Downtown, there’s Detroit, and there’s “D,” his nickname.
Folks in Detroit assume it stands for just that, Detroit.
“That’s good,” Derek said, with a big smile — always the marketer, who’s been pumping 97.1 The Ticket’s airwaves with spots for The D for years. “Detroiters are a huge portion of our customer base.”
On any given day, there are hundreds of Metro Detroiters at the Stevens’ Downtown properties. They like that there’s an Andiamo’s and Coney Island at The D; the nod to Michigan will continue at Circa, where the co-founder of Ann Arbor’s famous Zingerman’s Deli is opening a sandwich shop.
The Stevens properties always will air Tigers, Red Wings, Lions, Pistons, Michigan and Michigan State games. Last summer, a huge crowd gathered at The D to watch Michigan play in the College World Series.
The brothers, the only children of John and Betty, grew up in Grosse Pointe, both playing baseball through high school. Derek played a little football, while Greg gravitated toward his dad’s passion, sailing. They loved going to games at old Tiger Stadium. Mom was a math teacher (Derek?). Dad was an architect (Greg?). Derek attended the University of Michigan, and earned a master’s in business administration at Wayne State. Greg went to Dayton, earning a degree in civil engineering, and did his post-graduate studies at Oakland.
At The D and Golden Gate, the Stevens brothers orchestrated major renovations, but the idea of a ground-up casino never really crossed their minds. Until it just did.
“Dad was a very, very competitive sailboat racer. He was always about making things a little bit better every time,” said Greg, whose love of building things dates to his early years, with shovel and sandbox. “Mom saved pennies, dimes, quarters. We always had piggybanks. Be safe, be conservative. We were taught to work toward the next best thing, grow what we have. And we’re embodying that in a big way.”
The Stevens brothers also own the Las Vegas Events Center, the city’s premier outdoor concert venue. They previously owned Las Vegas’ Triple-A baseball team. In 2019, they also launched Circa Sportsbook, getting into the oddsmaking business — long a dream for Derek, who’s made headlines over the years for his big bets on the Tigers, and Michigan and Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament. Circa Sportsbook is at his three Vegas properties, and in Colorado. Derek studies the action like a hawk.
But the Circa casino is the biggest deal yet, by far — and, surprisingly, it came together relatively smooth despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Circa originally was supposed to open in December, but will open two months ahead of schedule.
The shutdown of casinos in Vegas — from mid-March to early June — actually helped. The state of Nevada deemed construction “essential” business; with nobody around, the city lifted restrictions on night-time construction. The Stevens brothers took advantage — Greg known to hop in a bulldozer or a crane and ruin a perfectly good pair of dress shoes, while Derek preferred to view the daily progress from a private perch, taking a selfie with every visitor who joined him.
The casino opens Oct. 28. The hotel will open Dec. 28, which had been the original date for everything.
“It was kind of amazing the stars aligned on this project,” said Derek, who on Tuesday will host a black-tie VIP opening that he’s modeling after the Detroit auto show. Many Detroit dignitaries are expected to be in attendance.
The Stevens had a bit of luck on their side, too. In Circa’s original plans, long before the pandemic, there were calls for state-of-the-art pool-water cleanliness, as well as a specialized air-filtration system — the casino smoke has always bothered him — that brings fresh air in from the outside through the floor vents, and releases it straight up through the ceiling. That means new air every 2 minutes, 45 seconds.
Normally, such wonky, back-of-the-house details wouldn’t get a care in the world from customers. This is not a normal world, with mask-wearing possible into 2022.
“It just worked out,” Greg said. “We did what we thought was best for our customers, with smoke, water cleanliness. And then the pandemic hits, and we’re as prepared as you can get. Great water quality and air quality … should be the every-day expectation.”
Coming up aces
With any community-altering endeavor, there always will be detractors. A blog called “Vegas Insight” wrote a 2016 post under the eye-catching headline: “Is Derek Stevens the worst thing to happen to Las Vegas?”
The blog’s premise: Downtown Vegas was never meant to be The Strip, so why change it. It’s like turning a deli into a steakhouse, when all some people want is a tuna melt. There’s that blue collar-white collar divide, and many aren’t comfortable blurring lines.
The Stevens acknowledge history. They’ve taken the famous Vegas Vickie neon sign and put it into Circa. But then again, it’s never been the Stevens brothers’ way to think small. Quite the contrary. Circa’s website says as much: “We go big. We go all night.”
They also know the numbers. Gambling on The Strip is on a slow decline, while gambling Downtown is on a steady rise. More than 20 million visit Downtown Vegas every year, making it one of the nation’s busiest attractions — behind only a handful of others, such as Disney World and New York’s Times Square.
Asked why they originally gravitated toward Downtown and not The Strip, Derek said that’s what he could afford.
“I didn’t have the money to start talking about buying Bellagio,” he said.
So they made the best with what they did have, updating and expanding their two original properties — Derek said one casino had just one TV, a 19-inch black-and-white with rabbit ears when they acquired the building; nickels still went in and out of the slots — and, along the way, they began making a significant impact on a long-neglected but historic portion of Las Vegas.
For similar financial reasons — Nevada has no personal income tax and is considered one of the most pro-business states in the nation — the Stevens brothers have never really sought trying to break into Detroit’s competitive casino market, or Michigan’s robust gaming industry. Instead, they’re just fine bringing a little bit of Detroit to Vegas.
And in a way, Downtown’s revitalization can be likened to Detroit’s, on a smaller scale. The Fremont Street Experience, highlighted by its canopy light show, is only five blocks.
“It’s amazing to see this great resurgence in downtown Detroit,” Derek said, citing the work of the Ilitches and Dan Gilbert.
“It’s kind of the same thing right here.”