Ameristar VP gambling on Vicksburg|[4/02/06]

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 3, 2006

‘I can live anywhere in the country, but I choose to live here.’.

Ray Neilsen, Vice president, Ameristar Casino Inc.

Vicksburg is where Ray Neilsen wants to be.

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After serving as general manager of Ameristar’s local casino for five years, the 42-year-old was promoted in February to vice president of operations and special projects of the national operation. He is one of two vice presidents in the company and can live where he chooses.

It’s Vicksburg.

&#8220It’s not my story. It’s Vicksburg’s story,” Neilsen said. &#8220I can live anywhere in the country, but the opportunity and my focus is here.”

Spending his early years between Twin Falls, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, Utah, Neilsen is a third-generation Ameristar executive. His grandfather was president and CEO of Ameristar Casino Inc., based in Las Vegas. His father, Craig, now runs the company.

Initially, Neilsen wanted no part of the family business. But he wound up going back to his roots – even though his goal after college was to sell Russian art.

In spite of having a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in international management, his dad didn’t give him a top job immediately.

&#8220He wanted me to start at the bottom so I could learn the business,” Neilsen said. &#8220It has made me more empathetic and compassionate to the various functions and different types of people.”

Neilsen’s start in casinos came in 1983, when he worked in construction for about a year. He helped double the size of Cactus Pete’s Casino in Jackpot, Nev. After college, he went on to bus tables for six months in 1991 and continued to work in restaurants at Cactus Pete’s and HorseShu Casino, also in Jackpot. He became beverage manager there and worked in that position until 1994, when he moved to Vicksburg to work as the beverage manager here.

The fall of 1996 was when Neilsen was promoted to management – as special projects manager, a position he held for six months, at Ameristar in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He moved up to assistant general manager at the casino before taking on the role as general manager at Ameristar in Vicksburg.

Today, Neilsen has three stepchildren working for Ameristar, and they started out small, too.

One, Kelly Jeffers, is entertainment coordinator for the casino. Another, Larry &#8220Chip” Burr, worked for 2 1/2 years as a supervisor and server in Council Bluffs and now is the manager of Heritage Buffet at the Vicksburg casino, while the third, Scott Burr, is working as an operations manager trainee. He will continue to work his way up, Neilsen said.

Neilsen’s personal connections to Vicksburg are just as strong as his business ties.

He is married to a hometown girl, the former Nancy Purviance, and the couple are involved in a number of projects around the city.

The Neilsens have sponsored two Vicksburg River Front Murals on the south flood wall – Early Explorations and Train Ferries and supported others. Painters will soon begin work on a third they will sponsor – Two Bridges.

&#8220He chose the Two Bridges mural because that’s the view he sees from his office,” said Nellie Caldwell, who heads the committee that is overseeing the mural project. &#8220Nancy helped Gordon Cotton on the Jefferson Davis one because he was her teacher in high school.”

The murals on the south flood wall were $15,000 each, and the ones for the next phase on the north flood wall are $16,500.

In addition to the murals, Neilsen donated $11,000 for preparation work on the north flood wall, and his wife gave $5,000 for the Jefferson Davis mural, Caldwell said.

&#8220He is really a supporter of the mural project. He likes what is happening down there,” Caldwell said.

Neilsen also supports the work of the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, which was to bring a weeklong festival to Vicksburg in October but was postponed because of Hurricane Katrina.

And, Ameristar has been a main sponsor of Riverfest, Vicksburg’s annual downtown event, for the past several years. This year’s festival is set for April 21-22.

He has also encouraged Ameristar’s employees to donate a portion of their pay checks to Ameristar Cares, a program that raises money for spinal cord injuries awareness.

Neilsen was voted &#8220Man of the Year” in 2004 by readers of The Vicksburg Post.

&#8220Art, culture and education are my focuses,” he said.

Vicksburg’s Ameristar Casino is a 42,000-square-foot gaming facility on Washington Street that features two restaurants and a bar. An eight-story, 150-room hotel is across Washington from the casino, and another – 14 stories and 400 rooms – is being built, along with a 1,000-space parking garage, near the casino.

&#8220We will continue to build on what we’ve built and build it bigger,” Neilsen said.

Ameristar is the largest of Vicksburg’s four casinos. It opened in 1994 and has been named a finalist in the Mississippi Business Journal’s Best Places to Work competition. Ameristar Casino Inc., founded in 1954 in Jackpot, Nev., operates six other properties in the United States.

Two more casinos are to be built in Vicksburg during the next two years. Both are in the process of gaining approval to begin construction from the Mississippi State Gaming Commission.

&#8220Vicksburg has a great deal of momentum,” Neilsen said. &#8220That has helped me want to stay here. I see an opportunity to be involved.”