Northern Nevada Casinos Fret Over Coming Winter

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Winter will show the vulnerability of northern Nevada's gambling market to competition from Indian casinos in California, casino executives and analysts say.

With the opening this summer of the Thunder Valley Casino outside Sacramento, gamblers will no longer have to brave snowy mountain passes when they want to gamble.

"I'm very high anxiety," Jack Fisher, general manager at Boomtown in Verdi, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

"It's going to be a tough seven, eight months of a road to hoe. I'm not looking forward to winter, but we'll battle it."

Northern Nevada casino operators acknowledge they'll lose so-called "day-trippers" who just want to gamble for a few hours.

"There's no reason to drive four or five hours to pull a handle anymore," said Chuck Bluth, owner of the Cal Neva Resort on the north shore of Lake Tahoe.

But the battle is on to lure those seeking a broader experience beyond the casino floor. Many properties say they're advertising more aggressively in anticipation of the winter ahead.

"We have our work cut out for us," said Gary Carano, general manager of the Silver Legacy Resort Casino in downtown Reno. "The $64 question was what would happen with the opening of Thunder Valley. Now the $64 question is what will happen when the snow flies."

Washoe County casinos' gross revenue fell 5.6 percent in July, the first full month of operation for Thunder Valley.

Observers say it shows the casino, with 1,906 slot machines and 100 card tables, and others in northern California are diverting business away from Nevada.

That trend only will accelerate this winter, believes Ken Adams, a Reno gaming analyst.

"When it snowed in the past, it only meant a pent-up demand," Adams said. "Now it appears ... we've lost that dollar forever. You can literally be on your way to Nevada and say, 'Lets just go to Thunder Valley.'"

The key to survival against Indian casinos is offering tourists more options to come to Nevada, said Ferenc Szony, CEO of The Sands Regent, owner of the Sands Regency in downtown Reno.

"We can't use gaming as a reason to come here," Szony said. "If someone simply wants to get away to play, we'll lose them even when it's not snowing. We have to keep our properties fresh."

Still, others warn tribal casinos will take notes on how Nevada responds and forecast even tougher competition ahead.

"Two and a half years ago, Indian casinos were a nice place to gamble, but they weren't the same as Nevada casinos," said Bill Henderson, sales and marketing director at the Carson Valley Inn in Minden. "Now, the slots are the same, the signage the same, the sounds are the same. The whole feel, it's like being in one of our casinos.

"Now we look at everything and say it's no longer OK to say it's always worked in the past. It keeps the creative juices flowing, and that's what this business is all about."

Much depends on California's uncertain economy, Adams said, and how the state resolves its $38 billion budget deficit and gubernatorial recall election.

"This winter is more worrisome to me than any we've faced," the analyst said. "At least we'll know the reality of Thunder Valley. We'll probably begin to see it with the first snowfall."