New ownership gives older Reno-area hotel-casinos a fresh start By Howard Stutz, Executive Editor, CDC Gaming Reports October 1, 2019 at 7:43 pm RENO – The Grand Sierra Resort and Nugget casinos offer a pair of case studies to the gaming industry on how new and dedicated ownership has given two time-tested Northern Nevada properties fresh beginnings. Consider the Grand Sierra. Grand Sierra Resort in Reno Southern California businessman Alex Meruelo, through his Meruelo Group, bought the property in 2011 for a reported $42 million. Today, after an investment of more than $200 million, the nearly 2,000-room Grand Sierra has been given a complete makeover and is the blueprint for Meruelo’s $100 million transformation plan that saw him shift the SLS Las Vegas back to its original name, Sahara, in late August. That wasn’t always the case for the Reno casino. Opened in 1978 as the MGM Grand Reno, the resort was viewed as the forgotten stepchild to the original MGM Grand Las Vegas. Gaming equipment manufacturer Bally Manufacturing – which also owned health clubs, theme parks and other entertainment businesses – acquired both properties for $550 million in 1986. The renamed Bally’s Reno sat virtually untouched for six years, however, as the corporate owner ran into a series of financial issues. In fact, much of the MGM theme remained in place. Once the re-configured Hilton Hotels Corp. took over Bally’s hotel business in 1992 – splitting off its Las Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City gaming properties into Park Place Entertainment – the renamed Reno Hilton finally received some care and remodeling. But the love didn’t last. Caesars World acquired Park Place in 2003; two years later, Harrah’s Entertainment bought Caesars World and the Reno Hilton was sold to a company called Grand Sierra Group for $151 million. The complicated transaction took more than a year to complete. Eventually, the new owners gave the property a new name and a minor revamp. More grandiose plans for the 200-acre site, which included a 48-story condominium tower, a water park, and other attractions, never came to fruition. The Great Recession took its toll on the location. In stepped Meruelo. He made the smart move, keeping the name Grand Sierra, and set about giving the building a thorough redesign. Guest rooms and suites have been renovated, the 75,000-square-foot casino has been redesigned and the resort now features 11 restaurants, a nightclub, 200,000 square feet of convention and meeting space, and the 2,500-seat Grand Theatre. The facility does provide a throwback for anyone harkening back to the MGM Grand Reno days. A full-scale prop airliner, utilized in the popular Donn Arden production “Hello Hollywood Hello,” has remained backstage since the show closed in 1989. Unlike Grand Sierra, the Nugget never had ownership issues until six years ago. Located in the city of Sparks, the property was built in 1955 and acquired in 1960 by its general manager, John Ascuaga. Through renovations and expansions over the years, Ascuaga’s Nugget became one of the largest family-owned and operated single property companies in the gaming industry. The Nugget Casino in Sparks With two hotel towers totaling almost 1,400 rooms and a 75,000-square-foot casino – a portion of which was built beneath Interstate 80, the main connector between Northern Nevada and the lucrative feeder markets in Northern California – the Nugget became a community centerpiece. In 2013, finding themselves unable to make improvements to the property without outside financial backing, the Ascuaga family sold the Nugget. Three years later, Las Vegas gaming executive Anthony Marnell III – through his Marnell Gaming – acquired the resort for an undisclosed price. He invested roughly $35 million into the property, adding new player tracking/customer rewards technology, renovating the hotel rooms, and updating the convention space. This summer, Marnell spent $6.2 million to add an 8,958-seat outdoor entertainment and events center across the street from the Nugget. In its first season, the center hosted concerts by several music superstars, including Toby Keith, Hank Williams Jr., and Lady Antebellum. Marnell swapped out the Nugget’s steak house, but John Ascuaga’s Oyster Bar remained in place – without the former owner’s name. When he bought the Nugget, Marnell told Northern Nevada media outlets he would work to preserve the historic nature of the popular restaurant. For personal reasons, I think that was a good decision. The restaurant has been operating inside the Nugget since 1959. The waitress who served me the location’s famous cioppino last week told me she’s been working at the Oyster Bar for 31 years. In 2011, when my daughter was considering attending the University of Nevada, Reno, we had lunch at the Oyster Bar following a campus tour. A gentleman passed our table and said hello. My daughter asked me who that was. I pointed to John Ascuaga’s name on the menu. The former owner often dined in his own restaurant like a regular customer. Sometimes, change for change’s sake isn’t always the right move. Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.