Confidence in downtown: Tip your hat to indefatigable Circa’s Derek Stevens By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports September 30, 2020 at 7:30 pm The history of the casino industry is full of confident characters, people who would have given P.T. Barnum a run for his money in the self-esteem department. In Las Vegas, a generation of men and women sold gambling to the masses as a time the activity was illegal in most of the nation. That alone takes a level of chutzpah not found in most people. For many years they led a parade by occasionally looking over their shoulder to see if their pasts, or the authorities, were catching up to them. In the modern era, that brand of character has largely given way to a more uniform manager capable of fitting into large corporate cultures. The game, in brief, has become a lot larger and more complex. I’m not talking about arrogance. The Strip has no shortage of that. I’m talking about genuine enthusiasm, the kind of thing you can’t fake. But once in a while one of those confident, authentically enthusiastic characters emerges. I think Derek Stevens is that kind of guy. Stevens just received the final go-ahead from the Nevada Gaming Commission to open Circa Resort & Casino downtown. Circa will open right into the grim reality of a coronavirus pandemic and recession-level economy with uncertainty about the future of Las Vegas blowing in from all directions. The operation is now set to open its casino and race and sportsbook on Oct. 28 with the 44-story hotel in operation before the end of the year. You wouldn’t know it from listening to Stevens. Talk about putting on your game face. Like several of the legendary Las Vegas casino operators of the past, he can trace his affection for the bright lights and 24-hour action to his first visit. Perhaps that’s why he reminds me so much of the old-schoolers and not the more buttoned-down gaming MBAs who speak more like Wall Street analysts than casino people. Somewhere in the universe, where all bookmakers pay and take their stories, Jackie Gaughan and Mel Exber, whose Las Vegas Club once stood where Circa now shimmers, have to be beaming with pride. Circa is out to become an absolute must-see attraction for the throngs of Americans who bet on sports. It’s little wonder the casino’s national advertising campaign began during the Major League Baseball playoffs. Jackie first booked bets as a kid in Omaha. Mel chalked his own line from Brooklyn to Fremont Street. They’d both be slapping Stevens on the back today. Derek Stevens at the Circa Sportsbook at the Golden Gate in Las Vegas/Photo by Jeff Scheid Meaning no offense to the ghosts of Jackie and Mel, this isn’t a traditional downtown joint. This is the first new casino resort downtown in four decades. When its marketers call it the “conduit between the Las Vegas of yesterday and the Las Vegas of tomorrow,” there’s accuracy in the imagery. With its focus on sports betting and willingness to integrate a multi-pool club vibe with massive viewing screens, it’s clear a lot of thought and planning has gone into the look and feel of the place. The vibe manages to blend the high-tech that younger players and visitors expect with that finger-snapping Vegas nostalgia they love – even if they weren’t born when it wasn’t yet considered nostalgic. Statistically, Circa is far from the largest casino resort in Las Vegas. Flashy by downtown standards, its 777 rooms and 1,350 slots with another 50 table games would make it closer to a niche property on the Strip. But I think that’s a good thing. There’s something about Las Vegas that is hard for the mega-resorts, despite all their elephantine elegance, to capture. Circa is taking a shot at it. And it’s doing so at what I’d argue might be the worst time to open a casino since the Kefauver hearings. All that takes a level of confidence and attention to detail not often seen – even here. No one can say how the cards will fall, but Derek Stevens has the spirit of Las Vegas on his side. John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas columnist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.