Nugget’s new owner eyes $50 million in upgrades |

Nugget’s new owner eyes $50 million in upgrades

SPARKS, Nev. — Life is going to be decidedly different for Stephen and Michonne Ascuaga.

Sparks Nugget Inc., headed by octogenarian John Ascuaga, last Thursday announced it would sell John Ascuaga’s Nugget to Global Gaming & Hospitality and Husky Finance for an undisclosed sum. The sale is expected to be completed by years-end.

Stephen Ascuaga, the property’s chief operating officer, says that as a child it was always a big deal going to work with his dad — his earliest memories of being on property were roaming the back areas of the Nugget as a child while the elder Ascuaga worked at his desk.

Stephen and Michonne Ascuaga, the Nugget’s chief operating officer, will remain with the property as it transitions leadership to Global Gaming & Hospitality, headed by longtime casino veteran Carlton Geer. Geer spent four years working for the Carano family at the Eldorado and another 13 years under the Paganetti family at the Peppermill in the 1980s and ’90s. Both Ascuaga children will serve in advisory roles once the transition is complete and approved by the Nevada Gaming Commission.

GGH plans to invest upwards of $50 million to renovate the Nugget, which had fallen behind the curve for large northern Nevada gaming properties in terms of capital reinvestment. Among its plans: renovating and updating the casino floor and adding new slot product, and remodeling the restaurants, convention space, hotel rooms and building exterior.

Stephen Ascuaga says last week’s announcement, though good for the property, was emotionally wrenching for the family.

“We look at it as a real positive for the Nugget, the employees and the community to have this kind of investment,” he says. “But there is a tear. We have been having these discussions for a long time.

“There are some realities that have shifted. As much as it is great to look back to the great days, so many things have changed.”

Geer says that GGH approached the Ascuaga family about 18 months ago regarding a possible sale of the Nugget. Ascuaga says the family has had many opportunities throughout the years to divest the property, but the timing finally was right.

“(Global Gaming & Hospitality) is able to advance the Nugget beyond what we are able to do financially,” he says.

John Ascuaga purchased the Nugget Casino in 1960 and expanded the property over the years to include the two towers that dominate the Sparks skyline. The property has more than 1,600 hotel rooms, 110,000 square feet of convention space and 75,000-square-feet of casino floor.

Geer says the Nugget is an ideal purchase for GGH because unlike buying an older property that needed to be razed, the Nugget is a great structure that just needs some reinvestment.

Husky Finance will provide funds for the acquisition and capital growth, and Geer says he and partner Michael Kim also will be co-investors in the venture. Geer will serve as president and chief executive officer of the Nugget, which for now will retain its name and brand.

“Our own personal financial risk speaks to the optimism we have about the market,” Geer says. “Sparks is a great demographic. Income demographics in Sparks are better than the average in Reno, and the competitive dynamics are different. There is opportunity in this market.”

Still, Geer admits that the biggest challenge he faces is communicating his vision for the property to customers and employees and convincing them that the new Nugget will be better than before.

The renovations also geared toward helping the property increase its share of the locals market and enhancing its marketing efforts for convention and tourism business, Ascuaga says.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the capital being deployed,” he says.

Large special events put on by the Nugget — Star Spangled Sparks fireworks celebration and the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off — will go on unchanged, as will the Nugget Scholarship program.

The Nugget’s 1,300 employees are expected to remain largely unaffected by the ownership change and will retain seniority and benefits, GGH says.

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