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Sale of Kansas Star Casino brings Boyd Gaming chief closer to his roots

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, at 8:42 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 10, 2013, at 9:44 a.m.

Bill Boyd was intrigued by the idea of managing a casino in Kansas.

The 81-year-old patriarch of Boyd Gaming, a prominent figure in Las Vegas gambling history, has 22 properties in eight states following his company’s $1.45 billion acquisition of Peninsula Gaming, the developer and manager of the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane.

The Kansas Star brings him closer to roots, Boyd said.

His father, Sam, was born and raised in Enid, Okla., 90 miles away. His grandmother was raised on a farm near Meridian. Two great-uncles were railroad men in Topeka. And one of his father’s cousins lived in Wichita. Boyd still has investments in oil wells in Cowley County.

Still, he admitted in an interview at the Kansas Star on Friday, where he appeared at the official grand opening of the casino’s completed facility, it would’ve struck him as strange years ago that someday he would have a casino in Kansas. He thought Nevada and Atlantic City would be about it for casino locations.

“Then floodgates opened and one state followed after another. And it’s still going,” Boyd said.

The Kansas Star, open for a little more than a year, already has established itself as a prize acquisition, he said.

“I think this will be one of the stars of our company,” Boyd said.

Boyd spans the transition of Vegas casinos from mob-run operations to corporate-owned entities. He was 10 years old when his father moved the family to Las Vegas in 1941 with $80 in his pocket, and took a job at a downtown casino dealing penny roulette.

Sam Boyd worked his way up and became part-owner in several downtown Vegas casinos.

The family owned the Eldorado Casino in Henderson, Nev., a Las Vegas suburb, in 1962, and opened its first downtown Vegas casino, the California, in 1975. Four years later, Boyd Gaming became the first company to develop a full-scale casino resort aimed at local Vegas residents when it opened Sam’s Town along a highway southeast of the city between downtown and Henderson, which some credit for starting the "neighborhood casino" phenomenon.

Bill Boyd had practiced law for 15 years before joining his father in the business. In 1984, Nevada gaming regulators turned to Bill to clean up the storied Stardust casino after it was seized by the state. Mobsters from Chicago and Kansas City had been caught skimming money from the Stardust in a scandal that served as the basis for the 1995 Martin Scorsese movie “Casino.”

Boyd said the state gave him 72 hours to take over the Stardust.

“Frankly we didn’t have much of a plan,” he said. “We knew how to operate a casino, so we went in and put our people in. We weren’t welcomed by the licensees. They tried to frustrate us for the first 10 days. It never was a happy relationship.”

Boyd managed the Stardust for the state for a few years, then acquired it and ran it until 2006. The company then imploded it to build the multibillion-dollar Echelon resort, where construction has been suspended since the economic recession.

Boyd has seen dramatic growth in Las Vegas over the years. Bankers were reluctant to loan casino owners money to expand in the early days, he said, but the arrival of Howard Hughes, the richest man in the world, gave the city more legitimacy and helped it grow, he said.

“That’s when the banks and a lot of different individuals and businesses thought Las Vegas must be OK, if Howard Hughes is going there,” Boyd said. “Today, I’m happy to say, our industry is very legitimate now. Banks don’t look down on you,” he said.

Sam Boyd died in 1993, the same year Boyd Gaming issued its first stock offering, and Bill became the company’s leader. Since then, it has expanded to several riverboat markets in the Midwest and South and launched an Atlantic City building boom with the Borgata in 2003.

The purchase of Iowa-based Peninsula Gaming and its five properties, including the Kansas Star, was a natural fit personally and for the business, Boyd said.

It allowed the company to expand into two states – Iowa and Kansas – where it had no properties.

“Being close to where my dad was raised, it was personally exciting to me,” Boyd said.

Boyd cited some keys to the way Boyd Gaming operates. Integrity “is really the cornerstone of our company,” he said. Teamwork and charitable giving are others.

“Every part of the company where we operate in, we try and support charities as much as possible. We will continue to do that here in Kansas, too,” Boyd said.

In 1998, Boyd, who had to attend law school out of state because Nevada didn’t have one, succeeded in bringing a law school to the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He personally has contributed $30 million to the school, which is named after him.

“I think it’s the thing that makes me most proud of all the charitable things I have done,” he said.

He also gave $1.5 million for new Astroturf for the UNLV football stadium in 1983, and now that stadium bears his father’s name.

The idea of giving back to the communities where he has properties began with his father, he said. Sam Boyd started the Boys & Girls Clubs of Las Vegas in Henderson, and he helped start the United Way in Las Vegas.

Boyd called the Kansas Star “one of our most beautiful properties,” and he has high expectations for it.

“Competition means a lot, and there’s not competition real close to here. There are Indian casinos in Oklahoma, but I think we’re a much nicer product. I think the location is great, close to a city like Wichita. I think it has a tremendous future,” he said.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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