Craig Neilsen’s parents owned a one-third mostly passive interest in Cactus Petes and The Horseshu, two small roadside casinos in Jackpot, Nevada, serving the southern Idaho market. Following his 1985 injury, Craig set his mind to redevelop them into a regional casino resort complex to draw in customers for longer stays and to expand their market. Facing opposition from the two other shareholders, Craig bought them out and proceeded to realize his vision. He expanded the casino floors and built luxury hotel rooms, several new restaurants and a ballroom for live entertainment. His plan was a financial success, and Cactus Petes earned a Four Diamond Award from the AAA, matching the ranking of the top properties on the Las Vegas Strip.
With riverboat and dockside gaming beginning to grow in states beyond Nevada and New Jersey, Craig identified a steep site on the bank of the Mississippi River in Vicksburg, Mississippi that many others had considered but passed on due to the engineering and geological challenges it posed for the construction of a casino. Confident that it was the superior location in the market, Craig assembled a team to overcome the development risks and proceeded with construction. Prior to opening the Vicksburg casino in early 1994, Craig combined it with the Jackpot properties to found Ameristar Casinos, Inc., which went public in November 1993. Craig maintained majority ownership of the company and served as CEO and Chairman of the Board until his death.
In addition to its location, Ameristar Vicksburg benefitted from the introduction of several innovations in riverboat gaming crafted by Craig, a new entrant to the industry. Among these were the use of two barges joined side-by-side to create a spacious, well-proportioned casino floor and the use of escalators to connect the floors of the casino. Ameristar Vicksburg quickly became the market leader in Vicksburg.
In 1996, Ameristar entered the greater Omaha market in Council Bluffs, Iowa, with another Four Diamond Ameristar property having the look and feel of a turn-of-the-century Midwestern town. Shortly thereafter, Ameristar acquired a casino hotel under construction in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nevada. Craig modified the design scope and plans of the property for the intensely competitive Las Vegas locals market, and The Reserve opened in 1998. Craig also relocated Ameristar’s headquarters from Twin Falls, Idaho to Las Vegas while building The Reserve to be closer to industry suppliers and to better attract top quality management.
In 2000, Craig and his management team completed a series of transformational transactions that more than doubled the size of the company. Ameristar acquired the largest casino in the Kansas City market and another one in the St. Louis market, which was operating in a temporary facility with a mothballed new facility that the current owner did not have the financial resources to complete. Ameristar sold its Henderson, Nevada property to the owner of the two Missouri properties, refinanced its balance sheet and got to work rebranding the properties and completing the new project in St. Charles, Missouri, after a redesign of its interior space overseen by Craig. The new Ameristar St. Charles opened its doors in August 2002 to wide acclaim. The casino floors of Ameristar’s Missouri properties were among the 10 largest in the United States at the time. A 400-room all-suite hotel tower was master-planned for Ameristar St. Charles, which was under construction at the time of Craig’s death.
In the early 2000s, multi-denomination slot machines were introduced in the Las Vegas market. Craig immediately recognized that these machines would be popular with Ameristar’s guests and create opportunities for improvement in the layout of the casino floor. Ameristar was the first adopter of these new machines in the emerging gaming markets and thereby gained an additional competitive advantage that increased its market share and profitability at every property.
Around the same time that Craig launched the Foundation, he also revamped Ameristar’s workplace giving program. Under the new Ameristar Cares program, the company matched 100% of employee contributions, and Craig provided an additional 100% match for employee contributions to designated local spinal cord injury charities in each Ameristar market. Inspired by Craig’s generosity, Ameristar Cares achieved an 85% employee participation rate, a level almost unheard of for workplace giving programs.
In 2004, Ameristar entered the greater Denver market through the acquisition of a bankrupt casino in the former mining town of Black Hawk. Because of the mountainous conditions, most casinos in this market were relatively small. The property Ameristar acquired had attractive architecture, a good location and room for expansion. Craig developed a new master plan for the property that included an expansion of the casino floor, the retrofit of the restaurants, a 25-story hotel tower and additional covered parking. The property was rebranded under the Ameristar name with the completion of the casino floor and restaurant projects in early 2006, and construction on the hotel and garage expansion began shortly before Craig’s passing in November 2006.
At the time of Craig’s death, Ameristar had earned the reputation of a leading developer, owner and operator of casinos and related entertainment facilities in local and regional markets. Its seven properties in six markets exemplified the highest quality in design and construction and offered outstanding dining, lodging and entertainment options along with the most current gaming technology.
Ameristar continued to prosper following Craig’s passing, with the management team driven to run the company in a manner that would make Craig proud. In addition to completing the hotels at Ameristar St. Charles and Ameristar Black Hawk, the company expanded into the greater Chicago market in 2007 and was developing an expansive casino resort in Lake Charles, Louisiana to serve the greater Houston market when Ameristar was acquired by Pinnacle Entertainment, Inc. in 2013.