How Scott Menke’s gamble on Parq Vancouver hit the jackpot

Menke faced long odds when he went all in to develop the controversial Parq Vancouver casino resort. Now, with the project open, his chips have come in

Credit: Jeff Vinnick

Full house: Park Vancouver, BC Place’s new neighbour

Scott Menke bet big on Parq Vancouver, the city’s new downtown casino and resort. Who is this single-minded Las Vegas transplant, and how did he pull it off? 

On a brilliant late-June afternoon, Scott Menke strides through the posh lobby of Vancouver’s Rosewood Hotel Georgia. “What’s up?” asks the co-founder and CEO of Paragon Gaming as he extends a hand. At first glance, his aquiline gaze appears haughty, but don’t mistake the tall American’s confidence for condescension.

For 20-odd days a month, Menke lives alone in this downtown hotel. Since 2006, he’s divided his time between Vancouver and Paragon’s home of Las Vegas as the company pushed to build an ambitious destination casino and hotel project, facing blowback from politicians, anti-gambling activists and concerned residents. Some critics have questioned Paragon’s track record. But in the end, Menke got his way: a few blocks south, in the shadow of BC Place stadium, Parq Vancouver opened its doors on September 29.

Credit: Melanie Dunea

Yesterday a fire broke out at the site, sparked by tests of the building’s generators. “The silver lining is we had a very solid fire drill,” Menke says over a glass of  wine in the Rosewood’s lounge. “It moves very, very fast when you’re at this stage,” he adds of construction. “You think, ‘Shit, nothing’s happening for three days,’ and then all of a sudden it’s done.”

Paragon has dealt with bigger setbacks. In 2011, after the company applied to move its downmarket Edgewater Casino’s licence across the street to what is now Parq, city council approved the relocation. But it unanimously blocked a request to install up to 1,500 slot machines and 150 gaming tables, capping them at the now-closed Edgewater’s 600 and 75, respectively.

Rather than try to bring Vegas to False Creek, Paragon recast the project as what it calls an urban resort. The $640-million Parq development, a slender, U-shaped building shrouded in orange glass, contains two Marriott hotels, one with 48 ultra-luxury suites. Amenities include eight restaurants, bars and lounges; Canada’s largest hotel ballroom; and its treed rooftop park. Among Parq’s other nods to Vancouver: 1886, its Chinese restaurant, references the year Chinatown was established, and the boutique Douglas hotel name-checks B.C.’s ubiquitous fir. There’s a 72,000-square-foot casino, but it’s on the second floor so guests can avoid it. For serious gamblers, the third-floor high-limit area has private gaming suites.

One knock against Paragon’s first pass was that people don’t travel to Vancouver to hang out in a windowless casino. “I think that’s a fair thing,” Menke says. “That’s what we’re really trying to rebrand. Parq Vancouver in itself doesn’t even have the word ‘casino’ in it.”

With that rebranding in mind, Menke has been on a charm offensive. In mid-May, he invited local and international media to the U2 concert at BC Place. There he worked the crowd with Las Vegas culinary power couple Elizabeth Blau and Kim Canteenwalla, who oversee Parq’s restaurants and lounges. The next morning Menke led a hard-hat tour of the project, followed by a lavish brunch featuring local delicacies. Less than five months away from showtime, Parq’s sunlit interior was still a maze of drywall and exposed wiring, but he brought it to life.

Even when he relays talking points, there’s something disarmingly genuine about Menke, who prefers chatting to texting. To that end, he uses an old flip phone, so he can’t show me photos of Gracie, his beloved Labrador. “She’s more expensive than child support,” he jokes.

Martin Stitt, area vice-president for Marriott Hotels Canada, describes Menke as visionary, passionate—and determined. “I don’t think Scott is really a guy who likes a Plan B,” Calgary-based Stitt says with a laugh. “He has a very clear vision of what he wants to accomplish with Parq, and therefore Plan B is not part of that.”

Parq helps fill a shortage of downtown hotel rooms, specifically in the luxury market, Stitt explains. But it’s also a game changer for B.C. and the country, he says, noting that pre-bookings for conferences and incentive travel are the strongest he’s seen. “This is bringing business to Vancouver that wasn’t even considering Vancouver or, in many cases, Canada.”

Jim Lightbody, president and CEO of British Columbia Lottery Corp. (BCLC), knows Menke well. “Scott is absolutely focused on that customer experience,” Lightbody says. “He really, really is trying to make Parq a truly Vancouver experience.” Lightbody recalls that when Paragon and BCLC were seeking approval to shut the Edgewater, a group called Vancouver Not Vegas protested expansion of gambling. “That’s actually a very appropriate term,” he says. “We do want to create Vancouver, not Vegas.”

For Menke, the casino business runs in the family. He launched Paragon in 2000 with his cousin Diana Bennett, daughter of the late casino magnate William Bennett. Besides Parq Vancouver, their portfolio includes the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe and the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. “He is very good at the big picture,” says Bennett, who gives Menke 80 per cent of the credit for Paragon’s success. “He’s very good at knowing where we need to go and how we need to get there, as long as there is somebody like me dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.”

Until this spring, Menke kept a low profile in Vancouver. The first time I met him, in 2010, for a BCBusiness story that looked at the case for and against Paragon’s casino plans, he came off as a cocksure Yank who had misread his opponents. Vancouver has changed him. Menke is leaner and fitter—the result of rising at 4:30 a.m. daily to work out with his trainer before running the Stanley Park Seawall. He’s also in less of a hurry. “One of the lessons that I learned is sometimes you rush into a project,”

Menke says of Paragon’s first attempt to win approval from the city. “In hindsight, we should have listened to the community more and had more consultation.”

The second time around, the company worked with the planning department, BC Place operator B.C. Pavilion Corp. (PavCo) and other stakeholders “to come up with the optimal building and optimal usage for that building,” Menke says. City Hall put its stamp on the project. “Our original design was very much to have the Vancouver green glass, and we didn’t want to push the envelope,” Menke relates. “Then the city planners came back and said, ‘We think we’re ready for a change. What can you do to be a little forward?'”

Meanwhile, Paragon’s architects huddled with the city’s architectural advisers. “They would come up with these little charettes in a period of two weeks, and then they would say, ‘OK, let’s redesign the building like this,’ which never makes me happy because redesigns are redesigns,” Menke explains. “But at the same time, it was fair in the process.”

Menke says Vancouver’s tourism business has grown and matured since Paragon’s first try: “We wanted to take advantage of that and build a facility that would be additive to the tourism industry.”

Marriott’s Stitt agrees with Menke that Parq adds a new dimension to the neighbourhood. “When you think about that area combined with BC Place and Rogers Arena, it’s a significant component of creating a true entertainment district in Vancouver,” he says. “It’s the missing link.”

Scott Menke was born in Glendale, Arizona, in 1964. “I was the rebel leaving,” he says. “I was the kid that broke away.”

His father owned a funeral-home business, and his mother was a schoolteacher. Menke’s maternal great-great-grandfather, A.W. Bennett, had been Glendale’s first mayor; on his dad’s side, his grandfather was a local sheriff.

“I was always very driven,” says Menke, who has two younger sisters. “I would steal flowers out of the funeral home and sell them on the corner on Friday afternoon,” he admits. “Since I was 10 years old, I wanted to be out of Glendale, Arizona, doing something.”

Paragon co-founder Bennett has known Menke since he was four. “Scott has always been kind of an old soul,” she says. “He’s always been very grounded and takes responsibility well.”

Menke thought he would follow in his dad’s footsteps, but the other family business called. In 1983, after graduating early from high school, he enrolled in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to earn a degree in hotel management. While attending UNLV, he did an internship with William Bennett’s Circus Circus Enterprises Inc. and the Circus Circus Las Vegas hotel and casino. Menke worked almost every job in the building he couldn’t get tipped for—”My family wanted to make sure that I wasn’t making any money and was sticking by the rules”—from the front desk and housekeeping to accounting and the casino cage.

Right after graduation, Menke helped Circus Circus Enterprises open the Colorado Belle, a 1,600-room hotel and casino in Laughlin, Nevada. With Diana Bennett, he led construction of the Excalibur Hotel and Casino and Luxor Las Vegas. In the mid-1990s, the pair played key roles in the purchase and redevelopment of the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. “That was kind of the start of my entrepreneurial side,” Menke says. “It gave me great structure in how to buy property.”

Credit: Melanie Dunea

All in the family: Menke co-founded Paragon Gaming in 2000 with his cousin Diana Bennett

Menke and Bennett launched Paragon with their own money. Looking beyond Nevada, they started in California, where in 2002 they opened the first of several casinos in partnership with First Nations. Paragon then turned north: its first foray into Canada was the River Cree Casino and Resort near Edmonton, a venture with the Enoch Cree Nation, which launched in 2006. Two years later, with the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, Paragon opened the Eagle River Casino & Travel Plaza in Whitecourt, Alberta.

The company exited the River Cree in 2014 so it could concentrate on Parq Vancouver. That same year, the Eagle River went into receivership. When the Alexis First Nation accused Menke in an affidavit of reneging on his promise to build a hotel, he responded that Paragon had tried to do so in good faith. Paragon concedes that the Eagle River didn’t meet economic expectations, but it says the project delivered economic benefits and infrastructure improvements to the community and the Alexis First Nation.

While the River Cree was under construction, Menke had started visiting Vancouver because it was closer than Las Vegas. He fell in love with the city. In 2006 in Yaletown, Menke heard that the Edgewater Casino was in financial trouble. “I did the old-guy thing where I just went over to the casino and waited for [owners Gary Jackson and Leonard Libin] to see me,” he remembers. “I said, ‘I’m not leaving. Let’s make a deal. You’ve got problems—I can help.'”

When Paragon bought the Edge­water out of bankruptcy from Libin and Jackson for $43 million that year, the casino was losing $9 million every six months, Menke estimates; it broke even within three months, he says. Around the time of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Paragon struck a deal with PavCo to develop a two-acre parcel of Crown land next to BC Place so it could move the Edgewater’s licence there.

Libin, now chair of Lakewood, Washington–based Evergreen Gaming Corp., says his meetings with Menke were always cordial. “They did what they said they were going to do,” he adds of Paragon. “If I had an opportunity to do business with [Menke] again, I would definitely do that.”

The Olympics made an impression on Menke. “I’m a strong believer that that really set Vancouver off on the international stage for all of the great things that are happening now,” he says, citing events such as the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and TED2017.

Before Parq Vancouver broke ground in December 2014, Paragon formed an investment alliance with Toronto-based Dundee Corp. and Ottawa’s PBC Group. The company hired former BCLC chief executive Michael Graydon as president of Parq Holdings LP. In 2014, the provincial government found Graydon, who negotiated the job while he was still head of the Crown corporation overseeing B.C.’s gambling industry, in a conflict of interest. He resigned early last year. Paragon’s position: Graydon left to pursue other opportunities, indicating that he thought his background and experience weren’t aligned with the business.

Menke talks up Parq’s economic impact on Vancouver, pointing out that some 2,000 construction and services trades workers built it. The facility will employ 1,800 to 2,000 people, he says, with an average annual payroll of roughly $85 million. Between its casino, hotels and meeting spaces, he’s confident Parq will be a destination: “I think that we will be adding 50 per cent of our customer base from out of province.”

In the meantime, Menke is sticking to the script that got him here. “It’s all somehow trying to celebrate Vancouver,” he says of Parq. “It’s a pretty dynamic city, and I think that I have definitely changed, mostly for the better.”