Derek Stevens Showcases His Vegas Vision With Circa Resort & Casino

Posted on October 28, 2020

Derek Stevens is a Michigan guy, with an accent to prove it and a business pedigree from the car parts business he still runs.

He didn’t set out to become the savior of old Vegas or the nattily appointed embodiment of its place in the gambling town’s future. 

But here he is, at his most anticipated moment as both.

Maybe it was the dandy custom blazers that became his signature for openings of and events at his expanding Las Vegas, Nevada, casino and resort properties. Maybe it was the large wagers he’s been known to make on sports events and the large ones he effusively claims his Golden Gate, D Las Vegas and Circa properties will take as the hopeful home of the sharp bettor.

“It’s just something like a lot of things in Vegas: Things evolve. I spent a good 15 years of my life wearing a blue suit, white shirt and conservative tie in an office before I came to Las Vegas,” Stevens, CEO of Circa Sports and the majority owner of The D Las Vegas and the Golden Gate, told PlayUSA. “I’ve always enjoyed being around people. And, well, I guess you kind of get your Vegas on.”

Or maybe it’s just that in an industry in an evolutionary process of corporate merger and conglomeration, in a city where personality matters and where his predecessor moguls are not, for various reasons, public-facing brands, Stevens has become the most relatable, recognizable power broker.

“I’m a business guy, but I love Las Vegas. I love sports, and I’m fortunate. I love meeting people,” he continued. “So for me, it’s not really the job where I’m punching the clock. I mean, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to design a place where I like to hang out.”

Circa Resort & Casino enters the fold in Las Vegas

Today, Oct. 28, Vegas’ modern carnival barker ceremoniously throws open the doors of his next project, a very large place to hang out — the second-tallest building in downtown, in fact — with the opening of the 2.78-acre Circa Resort & Casino along Fremont Street.

Built on the site of the old Las Vegas Club, which Stevens’ company purchased in 2015 and demolished, Circa encompasses a city block. A 44-story hotel that will rival Strat Tower for downtown gasps will not open until December, but a sprawling three-story sportsbook, eateries and a rooftop swimming pool will welcome guests this week in what local leaders and even competitors downtown see as a much-needed jolt in these COVID-19-addled times.

Promotional videos presaging the debut of the first bespoke resort undertaken in downtown Las Vegas since 1980 leave no doubt that Circa in particular (and Stevens’ properties in general) wish to provide a through-line from the allure of vintage Las Vegas mystique and what a modern version of the city can be, right back where it all began on Fremont Street.

Stevens isn’t included in a montage on one with the likes of Jackie Gaughan, Benny Binion and Jack Boyd, but the virtues espoused by the narrator — the willingness to “put skin in the game” — make the connection for the increasingly rare independent operator.

“Derek Stevens is a true salesman for his company and for the destination. In a time with limited interaction, he brings a fresh voice to the conversation that puts a face on the property by providing it the personality that Circa will exhibit,” Brendan Bussmann, director of government affairs for Global Market Advisors, told PlayUSA. “Las Vegas has been about personalities from its inception, and Mr. Stevens is no exception to that. This is the first time in a while that you have seen a property developed with someone that wants to be the face of the property and ushering in a new era for Downtown Las Vegas.”

Stevens a ubiquitous figure in Las Vegas, especially downtown

Stevens is a ubiquitous figure in Las Vegas and on social media, an executive and a legendary bettor who knows how to engage and entertain. Fifteen years spent working in auto parts sales honed his ability to connect and sell. It also underscored how much he wanted to get out from behind a desk.

Long swathed in a “conservative blue suit,” Stevens has made garish blazers his new trademark. He has, by a quick tabulation, “in the hundreds” of the custom items.

“That started with our downtown Las Vegas Event Center, and I made a different jacket for every different concert or band that we had,” Stevens recalled. “It’s in the hundreds. I can tell you that. I don’t know the exact count.” 

It was purple for the Circa staff play night last week.

In a video launched five years ago for the installation of the Messeken Pis statue at D Las Vegas, it was first a black model for a mock board meeting and then a quick change into a buttercream number with multicolored lapels and pockets. The choice on Wednesday will have to be spectacular.

That video was the perfect amalgam of what Stevens was becoming as a personality in Vegas, marching through the casino floor with a D Las Vegas flag to welcome a replica of the Belgian statue with a red-carpet reception at the valet loop.

What drives Stevens? An affinity for Las Vegas and business

Connecting the well-fitting persona as a new-age Jack Binion and the backdrop for his grandest project is Stevens’ nostalgia for vintage Las Vegas culture. A University of Michigan grad who got his first eyeful of the place in the 1980s, Stevens, 53, made and took home memories from Vegas before settling there a few years ago after acquiring the Golden Gate in a purely Stevens-quality escapade. In the process, he seems to have learned that he and the city have commonality.

“I’ve always been a big, big fan of Las Vegas history. And I’ve always thought that Las Vegas is rather incredible [in] how it always can reinvent itself,” he said.

“And for me,” he continued, “personally, I’ve had a lot of moments in Las Vegas that I’ll never forget, from being in my early twenties until now. I’ve always thought that Las Vegas had the opportunity to provide a tourist, a customer, an opportunity to look up and say, ‘Wow, look at these Fountains of Bellagio, look at this entrance of Caesars Palace. Look at what Excalibur looks like.’ This is an over-the-top city, and I really wanted to design something that had had modern amenities, yet had some respect and reverence to the history of Las Vegas. So the gambling part is all part of it, but [so is] the respect and reverence for Las Vegas architecture, Las Vegas culinary, and Las Vegas shopping and Las Vegas shows and entertainment, Las Vegas sports.

“So for me, I wanted to create something that didn’t just represent the 1920s or 1950s or the 1980s or the early 2000s; it’s really to represent all these great eras, the great points in Vegas history.”

Stevens is an aficionado, but he’s a businessman foremost. Still, whether he’s mingling with customers at LONGBAR wearing a protective mask or flying 2,000 casino patrons to town after COVID-19 closures ended, he seems invested in a good time for those on both sides of the transaction.

“I love growing businesses. I love growing management teams. And I guess to some degree, you know, that’s really at my core,” he said. “I’m really a business guy. Things in Vegas kind of evolved where I kind of became a frontman on some marketing components and things like that, and I’m just kind of my own personality. Maybe I became a frontman because we couldn’t afford other advertising and things just kind of rolled like that. And I always thought that, you know, the fact that we’re privately held is a big advantage. We make a lot of decisions, sometimes quick, quick business decisions and quick marketing decisions. I’ve always joked with people that we make more bad decisions than anybody else, maybe because we make a lot of them, and if we come up with an idea and a plan that doesn’t work well, we’re going to learn from it and we’re not going to do it again. But we might hit a couple home runs there and be able to roll with it.”

Circa’s Sportsbook is a massive new playground

The impressiveness of Circa’s size, scope and aesthetic is easy to see, even at a glance.

Photographs of the place have hit the company’s busy Twitter feed, and in a video sent after a media tour, a Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter remarked on the difficulty of capturing the scope of the place.

At three stories — the first of its kind, says Circa — with a studio for VSiN, the sportsbook will accommodate a thousand patrons and is likely to become the most iconic facet of a 1.25-million-square-foot, five-floor complex. The sportsbook, Stevens asserts, will be the largest in the world, with all due respect, of course, to its neighbors at Westgate SuperBook, which brandishes that claim currently. The SuperBook claims more than 30,000 square feet. Nevada Gaming Control Board senior research analyst Michael Lawton said Circa’s official size will not be reported to his agency until next year.

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Poolside guest to … Golden Gate co-owner?

The story of Stevens’ first dip into Vegas business is another facet of the Stevens legend. He plays it off somewhat, but the basic facts need little embellishment.

In 2006, on a trip to Las Vegas with his brother and business partner, Greg, Stevens made an audacious march from the hotel pool that soon landed him in the executive office with a 50% ownership of the Golden Gate.

“Yes, I did,” he conceded. “I did walk into the Golden Gate in T-shirt and flip-flops and shorts, and I happened to pick up a house phone and talked to the owner and asked if he was interested in selling an interest, and all those stories are true.

“I would tell you, though, two years prior to that, my brother and I had been very active about moving an investment portfolio to Nevada, because of no income tax. And as part of the process, we were in the process of doing that. We had the ability to purchase into the Golden Gate at that point, but the spirit of the story is not that we walked into a casino and we just bought it on a whim. We’d done considerable market research. And we’d been working on various elements of our moving some of our investment business to Las Vegas for a couple of years prior to that.”

They now wholly own the property after first buying a 50% stake in 2006. Stevens had to put on a suit to seal the deal, though.

“The fact that I was in flip flops or T-shirt was questionable, but we immediately scheduled a meeting for the following day and we suited up, blue suits and white shirts and ties, and we had a little more formal discussion,” he said.

In 2011, Stevens purchased the woebegone Fitzgerald’s in probate court and pumped $22 million in renovations into what became a Detroit-centric D Las Vegas. He’d begun investing in gambling technology as early as the 1990s.

“We’ve seen an opportunity to grow in downtown and along Fremont Street,” Stevens said. “It’s really something special. The volume of people is just absolutely tremendous. And for me, this project, it was the right time. It was the right location. The whole deal about it. So everything really kind of matched up and got us very excited about doing this project in downtown Vegas.”

Stevens and a college buddy stayed at The Dunes in the late 1980s, the first time he came to town. He doesn’t remember his first sports bet, but he’s sure one of his first wagers was on “this little Sigma Derby,” a wildly popular sentimental horse racing game that now resides in the D. 

“I think my first table game bet was a $2 bet on red, on a roulette wheel,” Stevens chuckled. “And my buddy and I, we won enough money to be able to buy a second night. So I think that worked out pretty well.

“And ever since then, I’ve had nothing but those moments in Las Vegas, where it’s, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ 

“So I wanted to give some thought to how really amazing Las Vegas could be and really represent some of the opportunities Vegas can provide for so many people.”

Photo by Marc Meltzer
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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY, ESPN.com, SI.com.

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