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Control Board urges OK of gaming license transfer for SLS Las Vegas

Updated March 7, 2018 - 4:35 pm

Alex Meruelo is a step closer to fulfilling the dream of owning a casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

“To be able to own a casino on the Las Vegas Strip is bigger than owning a sports franchise,” Meruelo, flanked by two attorneys in a hearing before the state Gaming Control Board, said Wednesday.

The board unanimously recommended approval of the transfer of a gaming license for the SLS Las Vegas — formerly the storied Sahara — to a company controlled by Reno casino operator Meruelo and his Meruelo Group of diversified businesses.

Meruelo declined interviews after the 45-minute hearing.

Regulators peppered Meruelo with questions about how he’ll cross-market Reno’s Grand Sierra Resort with the SLS, how that could affect operations at both properties and how the transaction would be financed.

Accounting and audit lapse

Control Board members also questioned Meruelo about an alleged lapse in slot machine accounting and audits noted in a Feb. 1 letter to the company.

While the vote to transfer the license was unanimous, the board warned Meruelo that the audits and accounting needed to be cleared up by the time the Nevada Gaming Commission considers final approval of the licensing on March 22.

Meruelo and Stockbridge Capital Partners, which has a controlling interest in SB Gaming LLC, jointly announced the acquisition for the SLS for an undisclosed price on May 23.

The 1,327-room SLS Las Vegas opened in 2014 after a $415 million upgrade. Formerly known as the Sahara, which opened in 1952 and once hosted the Beatles when they made their only Las Vegas appearance in 1964, the property struggled to be profitable, partially because of its location on the Strip’s northern end.

SLS has struggled under the management of part owner Sam Nazarian, who reopened the property in 2014 three years after the Sahara closed.

Meruelo told regulators he plans to use synergies between the Grand Sierra Resort, Reno’s largest hotel and the 60th largest in the world, to reverse the fortunes of the SLS.

“I was told there was no way in hell that I would be able to turn the Grand Sierra around,” Meruelo said. “If I can turn around the Grand Sierra Resort, I could do that at SLS.”

Meruelo said he plans to brighten the casino floor with new slot machines and he’ll market it in Southern California in part through the three radio stations and two television stations he owns in Los Angeles. He also said he has access to millions of dollars in cash and credit through some 30 companies he owns. He said he admires Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin’s 100 percent ownership and reluctance to take the company public and he plans to deploy that strategy for SLS.

“What the property needs is ownership and leadership, and I will be able to provide that,” he said.

New GM to be hired

Meruelo said he has interviewed seven candidates for general manager and hopes to make a selection this month. In the meantime, he said he would spend much of his time in Las Vegas as he makes gradual changes to the property.

Board members questioned Meruelo about concerns board auditors have with a slot machine accounting and audit system at the Grand Sierra that resulted in a Feb. 1 inquiry. A reply from the company on March 1 didn’t adequately address concerns, according to board member Terry Johnson.

Meruelo was told the company would have to resolve those issues before the Gaming Commission could approve licensing.

In other business, the Control Board approved a key executive licensing for Patrick Miller, president and chief operating officer of the Monte Carlo. During his presentation to the board, he said the rebranding of Monte Carlo to Park MGM would occur in late April with a soft opening under the new flag.

MGM Resorts International has invested about $500 million toward the transformation of the property.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.