Mohegan Gaming earns final Nevada OK to be the first tribe to operate a Las Vegas casino

October 23, 2020 11:34 AM
  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports
October 23, 2020 11:34 AM
  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports

Nevada gaming regulators have officially approved the business arm of Connecticut’s Mohegan Indian Tribe, meaning that the tribe will become the first Native American gaming enterprise to operate a casino within the Las Vegas Strip corridor.

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The public has to wait a few months, however, before the Mohegan Sun at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas is unveiled.

The tribe’s Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment was unanimously approved Thursday by the Nevada Gaming Commission following a more than two-and-a-half-hour hearing that mirrored a similar hearing two weeks ago in front of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. The Board had recommended unanimous approval.

More than a dozen tribal government members and Mohegan Gaming executives who were in Connecticut appeared at the hearing through a virtual meeting platform.

“This is an exciting opportunity to bring new investors into Las Vegas,” said Gaming Commission Member Deborah J. Fuetsch. “I believe this will be a win-win for Las Vegas and the Mohegan tribe.”

Gaming Commission Chairman John Moran Jr. said the tribe will have an opportunity to make a name for itself in Nevada.

The off-Strip property, formerly Hard Rock Las Vegas, will open Jan. 15 following a nearly year-long remodeling effort. The venue had been anticipated to open by this fall but was delayed due to the continued COVID-19 issues.

Mohegan Gaming CEO Mario Kontomerkos told regulators that operating a Las Vegas casino was a key element in the company’s growth strategy. The privately-held business intends to expand its workforce to a target of 22,000 employees by 2025.

Mohegan Gaming currently manages the gaming operations for Resorts Atlantic City; Indian casinos in Washington and Louisiana on behalf of other tribes; and the Fallsview Casino Resort on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Mohegan also owns its flagship Mohegan Sun Resort in Uncasville, Connecticut, and the Mohegan Sun Poconos in Pennsylvania.

When the multi-year management agreement with property owner JC Hospitality was announced in September 2019, Kontomerkos did not discuss the structure of the deal – whether it was a space-lease or revenue share agreement.

Kontomerkos and longtime Nevada gaming executive Joe Hasson, who was named the Las Vegas casino’s general manager in July, said the property will draw customers from Mohegan’s east coast casinos who have been seeking an opportunity to visit Las Vegas.

Hasson said the property will have a mix of partners all working with JC Hospitality.

Mohegan Gaming will oversee the 60,000 square foot casino space, and Virgin Hotels will operate the property’s 1,110 guest rooms, which will be part of the Hilton Hotel’s Curio Collection. AEG will oversee the entertainment. Hasson also unveiled the restaurant lineup, which will include several outlets that were at the resort when it was operated as the Hard Rock.

However, Hasson said Mohegan will maintain surveillance oversight for the overall resort. He told the commission the casino will operate a private gaming salon for high-end customers on the hotel tower’s 16th floor.

The Mohegan Tribe did not have to sign a tribal gaming compact with Nevada, since Mohegan Gaming is leasing and managing the space from another company and the location is not on sovereign tribal land. Mohegan representatives acknowledged that matter to the Gaming Commission.

The property closed in February for remodeling. Renovation work continued despite the coronavirus pandemic, as construction was deemed an essential business by Gov. Steve Sisolak. Hasson told the gaming regulators offers had been made to some 300 former Hard Rock employees who were laid off when the property closed for the remodeling.

“What they will find is a completely reinvented resort,” Hasson said, adding that all the returning workers would keep their seniority.

The casino will not have a poker room, and the planned sportsbook operated by Betfred USA Sports, the American subsidiary of United Kingdom-based Betfred Group, may not be open for wagering by Jan. 15. The company is currently going through the licensing process.

As for opening with COVID-19 continuing to loom over the casino industry, Hasson said the property would adhere to both Nevada’s policy directives and to protocols that Mohegan Gaming put into place when it reopened its properties this summer following a lengthy shutdown. Kontomerkos said the two casinos in Canada have yet to reopen, but a subsidy from the Ontario Lottery Corp. during the closure allows Mohegan to break even.

“We hope to get everybody back to work soon,” he said.

Mohegan is developing a planned $5 billion resort at Incheon International Airport in South Korea and has bid on a potential integrated resort license for the former Hellenikon International Airport near Athens, Greece. He noted the company’s planned project in South Korea could boost visitation to Las Vegas, adding that Korean visitors are a large customer demographic at the company’s casino in Canada.

The tribe also operates an online gaming site in New Jersey, has owned the Connecticut Sun of WNBA since 2003, and was the first tribal gaming enterprise to access financing from Wall Street.

Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.