Casino proposed for downtown Sacramento’s historic Elks Tower

Steve Ayers said Monday he has submitted an application with the city of Sacramento for a conditional-use permit to operate the Elks Casino.
Steve Ayers said Monday he has submitted an application with the city of Sacramento for a conditional-use permit to operate the Elks Casino. bshallit@sacbee.com

The owner of downtown Sacramento’s historic Elks Tower is hoping to open what he’s calling an upscale, three-level casino and lounge in the 14-story building on J Street.

Steve Ayers said Monday he has submitted an application with the city of Sacramento for a conditional-use permit to operate the Elks Casino, along with a lounge, bar, restaurant and other amenities, including a “spirits library” where guests can order rare vintage beverages.

Also planned is a port and chocolate area in the building’s lowest level.

“This is going to be a unique, elegant place, a destination for people to go to 24 hours a day,” said Ayers, who ran Armour Steel until shutting down the business earlier this year. He likened the 8,000-square-foot operation to the luxury Wynn resort in Las Vegas, saying it will have “an upscale atmosphere and ambiance.

The total investment for the venture from Ayers and his partners, who he is not yet identifying: “Certainly in the millions,” he said.

If city approvals are granted, he said, the new business could be open within 18 months.

As he described it, visitors would enter the casino on the 11th Street side of the building, where the Railbridge Cellars & Co. restaurant is located. They would then walk down one level to the card room area, a space that now includes a swimming pool that has not been used in several decades.

A lower-level area would house the port and chocolate venue, which Ayers said will target theatergoers, and the spirits “library,” which could include centuries-old brandies and other rare alcoholic beverages purchased at auction.

“It’s our business model to acquire them,” he said of those sorts of products, providing another upscale draw for conventioneers and other visitors in the downtown area.

Ayers said he is in contract to purchase the card room permit owned by the operators of the former Casino Royale inside the Red Lion Woodlake Hotel in North Sacramento. The owners of that permit included William Blanas – son of former Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas – and Sacramento attorney James Kouretas.

Casino Royale was shut down in 2014 by the California Bureau of Gambling Control after it was accused of failing to pay off winnings it owed customers. Blanas agreed in February to pay a $228,980 fine and $146,020 in court and investigation costs to the state, according to a settlement agreement.

The City Council in the past has shown reluctance to permit card rooms downtown.

In 2011, the council voted against a proposal to add a fifth card room permit in the city that would have allowed a facility in the former Hard Rock Café space at Downtown Plaza. Rob Fong, the councilman who represented downtown at the time, cited concerns over “social costs” in voting against the proposal.

But Ayers said he’s met with downtown business leaders, representatives of neighborhood groups, City Council members and Mayor Kevin Johnson to assess support for his idea.

“Its been very well-received,” he said.

Michael Ault, head of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, raised no objections Monday when asked about the project.

“We’ve met with them on their plans,” he said. “It’s an exciting project that adds to an expanding list of options for people to come to the central city.”

Ault added: “When the arena opened, we said there would be new developments and entertainment opportunities that would come with it.”

The project has to go through an extensive process for a conditional-use permit that will allow community input and possible site-specific restrictions to address concerns like crime or neighborhood impacts.

The conditional-use permit is a new requirement for card rooms passed by the City Council last April. That ordinance originally gave 12 months for a facility to reopen after a move. In July, the city increased the time frame to 18 months to allow for the longer time that conditional-use permits often take.

The Elks Tower project will be the first card room subject to the new rule.

The Bee’s Anita Chabria contributed to this report.