|By Ellen Creager, Detroit Free
PressMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 12, 2012--LAS VEGAS -- When you call yourself "The D," you had better reflect well on the Motor City.
That's why the Michigan owner of The D Las Vegas is spending $20 million to make the hotel worthy -- and inked a deal to install the first American Coney Island outside Michigan.
"If you are from Detroit, you are from the D, and I think it's a very popular name that people are proud of," said Derek Stevens, 44, majority owner, whose own nickname, coincidentally, is D.
Stevens came up with the new moniker after buying the faded Fitzgeralds casino-hotel in downtown Las Vegas last September. He purchased the 638-room property from the estate of the late cable mogul Don Barden. Barden, also a Detroiter, had owned it since 2002 and even had a penthouse there.
By the time Stevens and two partners stepped in, the tired, Irish-themed 1979 hotel sorely needed help -- and a new name.
So they got to work.
Since April, new carpets, furniture, lighting and paint have upgraded the two-level casino. Deep cleaning of the entire building cleared away decades of grime. Rooms on floors 16-34 have been totally renovated, with work on the lower floors progressing in a way that allows renovation to continue while the property stays open.
Although the casino-hotel's red D logo has a sultry Vegas image, the property will have definite Detroit touches. Grace Keros, owner of the iconic Detroit landmark American Coney Island, signed an agreement with Stevens this month to open a branch of the restaurant at the hotel. It will be the first one outside Michigan.
"It was the right fit for us," Keros said. "We're all moving full steam ahead." Nevada is already a top market for the restaurant's mail-order coney kits, she added.
In October, many Michigan friends and backers will be flown in for the hotel's grand opening. Its cafe offers DLTs, not BLTs. The new Longbar, the longest bar in Nevada, will have its bank of 15 TVs tuned to Detroit sports.
"Anybody from Detroit who comes to Vegas will always know that there is a Wings or Pistons or Tigers or Wolverines or Spartans game on," Stevens said.
Cool in The D
Stevens lives in Birmingham but commutes to Las Vegas every week. A Grosse Pointe native and University of Michigan and Wayne State alumnus, he still thinks of himself as a Detroiter.
Yet Stevens is not a novice casino owner. He got his Nevada gaming license and bought the Golden Gate Casino on Fremont Street in 2008 -- then spent $12 million renovating the 1906 property. He knew Barden, the first African American to own a casino/hotel in Vegas, who died in 2011. Last fall, Stevens, his brother Gregory and business partner Mark Brandenburg bought the Fitzgeralds property from the Barden estate. Terms were undisclosed.
Now, The D is being marketed in -- where else? -- the D. Billboards are up along I-75 and I-94.
"I keep getting calls from friends in Detroit who are seeing all the billboards, and they keep asking, is it a new hotel? They don't know where it is," said Darren Banks, an executive casino host for The D who moved to Las Vegas in April. The Windsor native and former hockey player for the Boston Bruins is talking up the hotel in Detroit, trying to get customers to come -- if he only can get them to understand where it is. He has to keep explaining that The D is in downtown Las Vegas, not on the Strip.
"It's different. It's way more relaxed. It's not pretentious," he said.
Downtown Las Vegas has long been known for its historic Fremont Street casinos, more homey (some say seedy) atmosphere and its many locals.
However, Fremont Street is moving up in the world. Zip lines soar above pedestrians. The Mob Museum just opened a couple of blocks away, as did a new City Hall. Free concerts, light shows and new nightclubs liven up the atmosphere.
And its 13 casinos are easily walkable -- unlike the Strip, where you need hiking boots to get from one casino to the next.
Sin City business
Although some in Vegas have dubbed The D as an old-school, plain vanilla name compared to glamour names like Vdara and Mirage, Stevens knows the place, not the name, will determine whether The D rises or falls.
"Of all the names that came up the past 25 years, there hasn't been a single one that was overwhelmingly great," Stevens said. "The first six months before it was opening, nobody could even pronounce 'Bellagio.' Now Bellagio stands for high class, and everybody knows that brand. ... Now, you have the new Vdara and Aria. These names are alphabet soup. But with almost every name in the English language, somebody's already taken the URL and trademarked a logo for it."
So he's sticking with his Detroit-friendly brand name.
"I knew if we named it The D, anybody from the Michigan area down to Toledo would look at it fondly," he said. "I'm ahead of the game to start with. And then I'm going to let our property do the talking after that."
Adds Banks: "The flavor is going to be Detroit."
Contact Ellen Creager: 313-222-6498 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @ellencreager
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