Joe DeSimone admits being overwhelmed by the award he received earlier this year from the Boulder City Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m not a resident of Boulder City nor is my business officially located there, but they named me the ‘Businessman of the Year’ for 2019,” he says. “To say I was honored is underestimating what it meant to me.”
DeSimone’s Railroad Pass Casino has been improving since he bought it from MGM Resorts in 2015. As part of MGM, Railroad Pass was an afterthought in a company that counts its revenues in billions rather than millions.
But DeSimone saw a diamond in the rough.
“I knew with the construction of I-11 right in front of our property that there was a tremendous opportunity here,” he says.
To anyone who drives past Railroad Pass on a daily basis, as many Boulder City residents do, the changes are evident. A travel center and truck stop was opened in May 2018. The truck stop parking quickly proved to be inadequate and DeSimone recently added another 76 spots, bringing the total to 160. DeSimone says most of them are booked on a nightly basis and some of the drivers rent rooms at Railroad Pass, using a commercial driver’s license discount.
“And I’m pretty sure we sell the most diesel fuel in Nevada,” he says. “The travel center is a nice complement to the casino and it works. We’ve added slot machines and our Railroad Pass gift shop over there.”
Maybe not so evident is a heliport that just opened.
“It’s tucked behind the mountain so you can’t really see it from the road, but we’ll start to use that in 2020.”
The big news for Railroad Pass will be a new hotel tower that will start construction in March.
“The hotel will be a Holiday Inn Express brand with 123 rooms and it will open in January 2021,” says DeSimone. “It will be different, a little higher price point. We’re going to target players who are part of our rewards program. We think they’ll like it, and the Holiday Inn Express connection will help fill the rooms.”
Overall, Railroad Pass will feature about 250 rooms when the new tower is finished.
DeSimone is kind of an anomaly in the gaming business. Rarely does an investor with no gaming experience buy a casino — and run it personally. DeSimone says it was the 46 acres of real estate that first attracted him — he also owns Henderson’s First Federal Realty — but the gaming option intrigued him.
“The gaming industry is complex and something I wasn’t used to and the learning curve was steep and long,” he admits. “Gaming is a very sensitive business. It’s very employee-dependent. And I had never been in food and beverage before. We’ve got two restaurants. So I had a lot to learn.”
As acting general manager of the property, DeSimone gets into the details. Thoughtfully, he hasn’t changed to direction of what has made Railroad Pass popular over the years: good food, great service and a fair gamble.
During MGM’s 10-year ownership of the property, capital reinvestment was minimal, but DeSimone says he spent $15 million on the truck stop alone. With the heliport and new hotel tower, he’s committed to Railroad Pass — and Boulder City.
“We love our Boulder City customers,” he says. “They were so loyal during the construction process and they’re back in the same numbers now that the road is completed. We get plenty of positive responses.”
Starting with the Boulder City Hospital, DeSimone ticked off a number of charities and community activities that Railroad Pass supports.
“We’re part of the community,” he says. “Boulder City used to be about 75 percent of our customers. They’re coming out in the same numbers but are a smaller percentage now with the truckers and Henderson visitors. That doesn’t mean they’re still not very important to us.”
DeSimone is looking forward to the future.
“I want to see where we are once we get the tower built,” he says. “Right now, the numbers we’re seeing are five times as much as when MGM owned it. We think we can get it to 10 times.”
To hear a podcast of the interview with Joe DeSimone, visit www.BoulderCityPodcast.com.
Roger Gros is publisher of Global Gaming Business magazine, the principal trade publication for the casino industry, and is a 10-plus year resident of Boulder City.