ELKO — Change has been the name of the game for the Red Lion Hotel & Casino, and on its 35th anniversary this month, longtime staff members reflect on the past and the future.

In mid-December, Director of Engineering Ruben Garcia walks among the casino’s 315 slots, gaming tables in “the pit,” Aspen’s Bar & Grill, the Coffee Garden, Starbucks, salon, gift shop and more. For the 35-year employee who started in housekeeping and moved his way up to facilities maintenance and construction, every corner of the hotel and casino has a story.

There has been “constant change, which is good,” he said. “It’s had its highs and lows, for sure.”

The Red Lion opened on the north side of Idaho Street in 1982 under the purview of Red Lion founder Tod McClaskey. He also owned the Gold Country Inn, the High Desert Inn, Holiday Inn Express and the Thunderbird Motel in Elko, along with about 50 hotels across the West.

Garcia and Ellen Bird, now director of gaming who started as a “change girl” 35 years ago, remember the property’s opening day on about Dec. 17 that first year. They describe how all the corporate personnel, including McClaskey, were there for the big event — some even helping clean in their business suits right along the hotel and casino staff.

“It was the biggest thing happening at the time,” said Garcia, who remembers having to wear a maroon-colored smock that he said had him questioning his employment choice.

The original owners were particular about appearance, and all staff members had to wear a uniform, he recalled. Originally, that high standard of dress code carried over to guests. Garcia explained that at first, Elko men were asked to remove their cowboy hats when they entered the establishment. That rule changed within a week, he said.

At its peak, employees numbered about 600 and now total more than 400, said Angela Fraser, director of marketing for Play Elko Properties. Forty people have worked at the Red Lion for 20-plus years and more than 60 for 10-plus years. Joining the roster of those with Red Lion since the opening day are engineering assistant Manuel Villegas, housekeeper Maria de Jesus Cortez and pit dealer Tenne Bagby.

“We have retained quite the history of employees here,” Fraser said. “Some of our employees are actually families.”

The property’s owners are also family. In 2006, Las Vegas-based father-son duo Larry J. and Larry D. Woolf of the casino management and consulting company Navegante Group purchased the Red Lion. The senior Woolf started the group in about 1995. The son serves as the CEO of properties including of Elko’s Red Lion, and Marcus Suan is the vice president of operations. Navegante also owns the Gold Country Inn, High Desert Inn and the Chevron station at the corner of Idaho Street and East Jennings Way.

McClaskey “was definitely a pioneer in the hotel industry, and the Woolfs are pioneers in the gaming industry, so it’s a good marriage,” Fraser said.

A major change at the Red Lion was growing from 154 hotel rooms to 222. The addition was necessary to accommodate guests visiting Elko for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, starting in 1985. Even more guests visited via Casino Express Airlines, which used up to five planes — named after playing cards — to usher tourists to Elko from around the U.S. The flight program ran from 1986 to 2006 and transported an estimated 100,000 travelers.

“When we had the planes here, there were so many people,” said Villegas, who has assisted with almost every major remodel since the Red Lion’s opening.

About four years ago, the new owners ordered the remodel of Misty’s Restaurant and Club Max into Aspen’s Bar & Grill and the show lounge, and a Starbucks opened inside in 2002. The gift shop, which opened shortly after the hotel and casino, is about ready for a remodel, Fraser said.

“We’ve seen everything change here,” she said. “I think the only thing that hasn’t changed is that back stairwell with the [original] carpet.”

“And I’m leaving it that way,” Garcia quipped.

The rest of the property, however, and the other Elko locations are expected to continue seeing changes as the Woolfs take an interest in the community.

“The Woolfs, they have put a lot of money back into the properties, which is nice,” Garcia said. That’s why they continue to look as good as they do. They strive and really take pride in ownership, and it shows.”

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