Daily Archives: June 21, 2009

Wall Street Bets on Isle of Capri Casinos

Comprehensive cost-cutting measures and being located outside the troubled Las Vegas and Atlantic City markets is making Isle of Capri a safer bet among investors despite continued revenue loss at its casinos. The regional gambling operator, based in St. Louis, Mo., is sporting the best returns among its casino peers, with its share price more than tripling since the beginning of the year.

“Although there is broad pressure on consumer spending, smaller regional markets have held up better than Las Vegas and Atlantic City during the recession,” said Michael Paladino, senior director of gaming at Fitch Ratings. 

Missouri recently eased gaming regulations, which helped Isle’s relative property performance compared with some of the larger gaming companies with greater exposure to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Paladino said. In general, regional casinos in America’s heartland have stabilized because they aren’t as vulnerable to weakness in nongaming areas such as lodging, fine dining and air travel. 

MGM Mirage and the Las Vegas Sands Corp. had been dogged by concerns surrounding liquidity as well as a brutal business environment in Sin City which is battling rising unemployment and home foreclosures. Amid signs of industry stabilization and the removal of bankruptcy fears, MGM Mirage is up 260% from its 52-week low of $1.81. However, the company’s share price is still down about 52% from the beginning of the year.  Meanwhile, Las Vegas Sands is up roughly 36% on the year to about $8. 

Keith Foley, a gaming analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, said while investors are getting more bullish because the pace of declines has slowed, Isle of Capri is still grappling with “declines on a revenue basis with few exceptions across the board,” at the casino properties. 

“The top line is still struggling,” he said. Foley noted, however, that the management team has made extensive strides at controlling costs. “It’s still hard to say that (demand) trends have stabilized across the U.S.” 

Isle of Capri, which owns 17 properties, announced last week that it swung to a fiscal fourth-quarter profit on a $57.7 million gain from the early extinguishment of debt. It was the company’s second straight quarter of profit after more than two years of losses – a $95.2 million Hurricane Katrina insurance claim inflated its fiscal third-quarter results. 

The debt-laden casino operator has been cutting costs and consolidating its portfolio into two brands as it concentrates on the U.S. The company has left the U.K. market and plans to stop operating its property in the Bahamas, where a sharp decline in tourism in late May shuttered a Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts BV property. 

Fitch’s Paladino said the company has made strong efforts to improve their financial position, which has improved sentiment on the company. They have “one of the top cost-focused management teams in the industry,” he said. “Their overall credit profile is pretty attractive.”  Paladino also said Isle has no debt maturities until 2012 and very minimal capital spending plans beyond maintenance.

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Speeding Tourists into Las Vegas at 150 or 300 mph – or not at all?

Sooner of later, most predict, the stagnant Las Vegas economy will recover.  The only question is what the crowning stimulus will be and when will it happen.  To have over 42 million visitors annually to come to Las Vegas and stay in the projected 157,000 hotel rooms projected by 2011, bringing about a true economic recovery, what better of an enticing solution than to provide a high-speed train to supplant current driving and flying modes, whisking riders between Las Vegas and Southern California, the route usually taken by visiting tourists.maglev

It sounds like a good idea to goose Nevada and Southern California tourism numbers, but is it really a viable solution?  Political jaw flapping has been ballyhooed for years and especially now with the $8 billion in federal money available for competing fast trains that offer the best solution.

Two alternative proposals are currently on the table.  One is a publicly-funded maglev train, smoothly propelling tourists at speeds up to 300 mph by magnetic levitation into Ontario, California, close to the airport and hub for Southern California.  It uses a technology untried in this country because it is so expensive to build. The price tag- $12 billion.

The other is the DesertXpress, which would use traditional steel wheels on steel tracks, driven at speeds up to 150 mph with electric or diesel-electric power. It would end in the desert town of Victorville, requiring more than an hour’s drive to get to the terminus  proposed by the the maglev. Although the $4 billion project was pitched as a privately funded venture, its backers say now they may seek government loans.

Both of the proposed lines would transport passengers between Las Vegas and Southern California in about 80 minutes for about $50 — with one going at half the speed and covering two-thirds the distance of the other.

The choices raise pivotal questions as the nation weighs its appetite for risk and considers whether such a system should be in public versus private hands.   Would people in these financially trying times even consider hopping aboard either of these futuristic trains?  Las Vegas Backstage Access contends that that’s the key statistical profile that first needs to be researched prior to any determination on which method, if any, is best to deploy. 

This week, the federal Transportation Department is planned to unveil guidelines for those seeking to apply for a portion of the $8 billion passed by Congress as part of the economic recovery package. Decisions will be made this year.   Hopefully, the guidelines will follow from a robust, statistically valid needs analysis.

The maglev project desperately needs public dollars and has appealed to Obama’s transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, for $1.8 billion to develop the first segment — from Las Vegas to the state line at Primm — and to continue planning the rest of the route.

DesertXpress Enterprises LLC has shunned federal aid, promising to be privately financed and turn a profit, a feat no other modern rail line has been able to accomplish in this country. But it is also in the market for federal loans.

If the maglev project gets a federal boost of stimulus dollars, it could make it difficult for DesertXpress backers to raise private equity. If DesertXpress can leverage its newfound support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, it could knock maglev out of the picture.

Maglev’s boosters say that even if DesertXpress is constructed, it will still pursue its own project. But skeptics doubt there is sufficient appetite, financial or otherwise, for the Federal Railroad Administration to permit both trains.

This maglev project is the brainchild of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission, a highfalutin name for a nonprofit entity formed in 1988 with the sole purpose of developing a fast train between Las Vegas and Southern California.

The commission, made up of private citizens and public officials, entertained several technologies before choosing magnetic levitation in 1991 and choosing American Magline Group as its developer in 1993.

The maglev train,  proposed originally in 2002, proposes to zoom passengers between Vegas and the Disneyland area, enabling tourists in either city to experience the other, just 80 minutes away, without need of automobile. The northbound maglev would stop in Ontario to connect with the airport, and would stop southbound stop at Ivanpah, to connect with an airport planned for there. The project could break ground in 2011.

With California separately building a north-south high-speed train line between San Francisco and Orange County, the maglev team envisions passengers being able to connect to the California train at its stop in Anaheim station to continue to Los Angeles’ Union Station.

Groundbreaking for the California network could happen in as little as the next few years, funded by an $11 billion bond issue approved by California voters last year.  It is considered a front-runner in being awarded federal stimulus money.

Maglev critics, though, deride the technology as wishful futurism, and transportation experts say it is maglev’s price tag, not the science, that has left it undeveloped in this country.

In fact, the world’s only operating commercial maglev line links Shanghai and Pudong International Airport — a 19-mile-long run completed in 7 1/2 minutes.

That system, now in its ninth upgrade, is what American Magline wants to build between Anaheim, California and Las Vegas.

Not only Reid, but much of Nevada’s political class has at times supported the maglev train. And then DesertXpress plans emerged, relatively suddenly, to pose a competitive challenge.  That has left lawmakers to rework their support. Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, a former commission member as an appointee of three governors, thinks maglev is the “technology of the future,” but is now giving some thought to DesertXpress, her spokesman said.  Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley is among those who support “whichever one is successful.”  Sitting on fence.

Over the years, the commission has raised $10 million for maglev — more than $7 million in federal allocations championed mainly by Reid and more than $2 million in state and local funding.

Internal Revenue Service filings from recent years show that most of the commission’s annual expenditures go to the American Magline Group, the consortium of private companies that is developing the project.

Rail lines are an expensive undertaking:  Before a single track is laid, millions are spent drafting the inches-thick environmental review required by the federal government.

After two decades, the commission’s maglev project is suddenly losing the paper war.In just a few short years, the DesertXpress backers have spent $25 million producing an environmental report.  DesertXpress is the nation’s only privately financed train proposal before the Transportation Department’s Federal Railroad Administration.

If their plan is approved this year, DesertXpress backers say, they can raise private funding and break ground in 2010. Earlier groundbreakings have been postponed.

Although Reid secured another $45 million last year for maglev, the money has not been spent because the commission had been unable to raise the required matching funds until American Magline Group contributed the $11 million two months ago.

Should precursor rider statistics first staunchily justify the real feasibility/usage of any high-speed train, before reviewing and selecting of any particluar method, Las Vegas Backstage Access would favor the maglev proposal.  

The DesertXpress appears to be a dead-end train to nowhere proposal, a mass transit system doomed to economic and ridership failure from the get-go.  Few riders from Las Vegas, it is believed, would relish the idea of stopping in desolate Victorville and then wait to catch another train or rent a car to drive or find an airline to fly their last leg across the Mojave Desert to Southern California, adding considerable more time and expense to their trip.   

The maglev train would provide a relatively more successful ridership and would greatly boost Las Vegas tourism numbers and relieve traffic congestion at McCarran International Airport, on the I-15 freeway and in Clark County, especially along the Strip corridor. Without having the maglev option, passengers could just as easily and economically fly the entire route in one stop.  And more may just opt to do the usual four-hour plus grueling drive. Looking to long-term debt, the DesertXpress would most likely be severely challenged and potentially cause much more relative public funding than the maglev to stay afloat.

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