Business & Real Estate

This man is betting people will want to gamble in downtown Sacramento

Steve Ayers, principal of the Elks Tower Casino and Lounge, left, and project manager Stephen Pagano stand in the future 17-table gaming area on Tuesday in Sacramento. In phase two of the business, they will remodel the former pool area and add a 17-table gaming area with food.
Steve Ayers, principal of the Elks Tower Casino and Lounge, left, and project manager Stephen Pagano stand in the future 17-table gaming area on Tuesday in Sacramento. In phase two of the business, they will remodel the former pool area and add a 17-table gaming area with food. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Instead of playing with steel beams, local businessman Steve Ayers is betting on poker cards.

Ayers, who shuttered his Armour Steel fabrication company last year, wants to fulfill a childhood dream – running a gambling hall. He envisions turning the Elks Tower into a card room – bringing a slice of Las Vegas to downtown Sacramento. The only hurdles are lawsuits from would-be competitors and state approval.

The Elks Tower Casino and Lounge will initially be a five-table establishment on the ground floor of the iconic building that sits at the corner of J and 11th streets. The copper-colored Elks building has event and office space on the upper floors, in addition to hosting the Claim Jumper restaurant.

“We’re not looking to create a Denny’s,” said Ayers, referring to the ubiquitous diner chain. “We’re looking to go over-the-top in design with Las Vegas-style elegance.”

Ayers, who grew up in Sin City, has applied to acquire the state card room license of the former Casino Royale, which was shuttered by the state in 2014. Ayers, 57, has already obtained city approval in addition to securing support from the Downtown Sacramento Partnership.

The Bureau of Gambling Control under the California Department of Justice conducts an extensive background investigation for all card room owners. The department said it plans to issue a decision in the fall.

Ayers believes the state will grant him the license for the card room, which would be open 24 hours a day. In the meantime, he is proceeding with a redesign of the 2,000-square-foot space with plans to commence operations in October.

If the venue proves profitable, the casino would be moved to the adjacent basement floor that has 23,000 square feet, enough room for the state limit of 17 tables. Renderings for phase two show a speakeasy-style design with large chandeliers. The cost of the project is “in the millions,” said Ayers, who declined to provide a precise figure.

“It’s kind of an underserved part of downtown,” said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. “They seem to have a very good plan with how to activate it.”

Ault said the card room could extend the late-night entertainment options for people attending events at Golden 1 Center or dining at recently opened restaurants near the arena.

“Our goal is that people come early and stay late,” Ault said.

Mike Testa, chief operating officer of Visit Sacramento, said the card room will allow the convention and visitors bureau to better market the city to conference organizers.

“From a programming standpoint, it’s a good thing,” Testa said. “Downtown is suddenly offering multiple attractions to multiple demographics.”

Not everyone is pleased with the prospect of a card room smack dab in downtown.

The owners of two competing card rooms, Clarke Rosa of Capitol Casino on 16th Street and John Park of Parkwest Casino Lotus in south Sacramento, are suing the city for allowing Ayers to acquire the card room license belonging to Casino Royale.

Rosa and Park did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. A court hearing is set for October. City attorney James Sanchez declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Ayers has acknowledged that the litigation could interfere with his plans and accused his competitors of “unjustly enriching themselves.”

The tribal owner of Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln, the Sacramento area’s premier gaming venue, is also opposed to the Elks project. Spokesman Doug Elmets said the card room will be a “far cry from anything that remotely resembles a Las Vegas casino,” adding that it had the “potential to be the expansion of urban gaming.”

Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the area, declined to comment on the project.

“We’re looking to create an experience,” Ayers said. “This can be a very special place for our visitors and residents.”

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang

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