‘Make it shine’: New owner offers light at end of tunnel for Railroad Pass

Henderson commercial real estate broker Joe DeSimone, shown Thursday, April 16, 2015, has taken charge of Railroad Pass. Changes at the historic property are already taking place.

The roof at the 83-year-old Railroad Pass casino is so worn out that on rainy days, employees have had to use buckets to catch the water dripping through its many leaks.

They call it the “bucket patrol.” Sometimes, leaks have been so bad that workers had to shut down a few slot machines and cover them with plastic.

Janine Thompson, who’s worked on the casino floor there for two decades, said it was an embarrassing sight to see. But she has good reason to think the patrol will soon be disbanded: Joe DeSimone, the property’s new owner, promised to finally replace the casino roof.

Henderson’s Railroad Pass Casino Changes

Henderson's Railroad Pass Casino, which bills itself as the longest running casino in the country, is under new ownership from local commercial real estate broker Joe DeSimone on Thursday, April 16, 2015. Changes at the historic property are already taking place like repainting the exterior, remodeling their sports book area and some popular new slots. Launch slideshow »

DeSimone’s background is in real estate, and he has no gaming experience — a surprising resume for the owner of Nevada’s longest-running casino. Still, Thompson thinks he could be just what Railroad Pass needs.

Until DeSimone’s purchase wrapped up earlier this month, Railroad Pass was owned by MGM Resorts International, which took over the property when it acquired Mandalay Resort Group in 2005. Under the control of such a corporate casino giant, Railroad Pass didn’t always get the attention it deserved, Thompson suggested.

She said that had an effect on the employees.

“They were just slowly ruining the morale of Railroad Pass, because we’re all just a number,” Thompson said.

With a private owner, she hopes that will no longer be the case.

An MGM Resorts spokesperson deferred comment about the property to its current management. Railroad Pass executive director Curt Thompson (no relation to Janine), who also worked there while MGM was the owner, put it this way: If MGM Resorts had $1 million to spend, and the Bellagio needed new slots while Railroad Pass needed a new casino roof, where would that money be better spent? At the Bellagio, naturally, where the slots would offer a high return on investment thanks to the large volume of gamblers streaming through the Strip resort. Now, with an owner who holds just one casino, there's no equation to determine where the investments should go.

“This has been a very successful property, but unfortunately we were not able to put the money into it that we felt was needed to be ready for the next step,” he said. “Mr. DeSimone is doing that.”

In addition to replacing the roof, DeSimone is also planning other significant improvements. He wants to repaint the exterior, which the executive director said would “make it shine like it hasn’t shined in many years.” And he’s considering building some kind of travel center or truck stop on the south side of the property, where there’s now a parking lot.

The improvements could dovetail nicely with the completion of the Boulder City bypass, a key freeway project that will connect a portion of Interstate 515 to U.S. 93. One of the project’s boundaries is about one mile north of Railroad Pass, and the improved traffic flow could bring more customers to the casino.

As much as DeSimone plans to invest in improvements at Railroad Pass, however, he doesn’t want to change the character of the property.

“Most of the changes we’re going to do are physical changes … we want the experience to maintain itself for the existing customers, so they don’t feel like there’s anything different going on,” DeSimone said.

One aspect that definitely won’t change, at least not dramatically: the property’s coin-operated slot machines. While gamblers can often only find ticket in, ticket out machines in casinos, Railroad Pass is among the Las Vegas casinos that still maintain some that accept coins.

Marcus Suan, who’s running the gambling operations because DeSimone is not yet licensed by state regulators, says those machines will stick around, even while Suan looks at making improvements to the casino floor.

The coin machines are just one reflection of the property’s throwback feel. Opened in 1931, Railroad Pass received one of the state’s first gaming licenses, and it proudly puts elements of its rich history on display. There’s a small museum with old photographs and memorabilia from the casino’s early days, as well as a room with a safe that once held pay for workers building the nearby Hoover Dam.

Michael Green, an associate history professor at UNLV, said that even if some locals have often taken it for granted or neglected to regularly patronize it, Railroad Pass has endured as a kind of community institution.

“It’s just one of those things that, if you’re a longtime local as I am, it has always been there,” Green said.

DeSimone appreciates the casino’s historical significance. Railroad Pass was one of the first places he saw when he initially drove into the Las Vegas area from New York in 1991, and though he wasn’t too familiar with it before looking into the purchase, he had always been curious.

He says he appreciates Railroad Pass for what it is — in other words, he doesn’t plan to demolish it to build something different and flashier.

“Me and my friends that put the money up to buy it are all interested in the long-term prospects,” DeSimone said. “If anything else, we’d love to expand into other properties.”