Las Vegas gambles on the family vacation market

July 01, 1999|By George F. Will

LAS VEGAS, NEV — LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- In a city not known for nuances, former Mayor Jan Jones called a visitor's attention to a portentous one. A hotel going up on the Strip will, she says, have minibars in the rooms. If your reaction is "so what?" you are not in a Las Vegas frame of mind.

Thousands of U.S. hotels have in-room minibars, but most Las Vegas hotels do not, because they do not want guests loitering in their rooms, they want them in the casinos. Ms. Jones, whose successor in City Hall is a lawyer for Mafia figures -- Viva Las Vegas! -- says minibars in the rooms are evidence that the city wants to be known for more than what it primly calls "the gaming industry."

Think of minibars as signs of family values. Seriously. This city wants to become a family vacation destination. Already it is coining money off things -- rooms, entertainment -- that, once upon a time, it almost, or actually, gave away to attract gamblers. About half of revenues on the Strip, home to 11 of the world's 12 largest hotels (the largest is in Thailand), come from noncasino sources, and noncasino revenues are growing nearly four times faster than casino revenues.

The city itself -- an American improbability, "a cruise ship on a sea of sand" says National Geographic's William Newcott -- is growing faster than anything other than a cactus should be expected to grow in a desert. More than 75,000 people move in every year, requiring a new school to open every month.

Low tax state

New Las Vegans are drawn here because residency is, Ms. Jones says proudly, a good deal. Gambling taxes generate so much revenue, there is no income tax, and the average newcomer household pays $1,889 in sales and other taxes annually while receiving $6,102 in government services.

This city, where caviar is served on a golf course, has an urgent and poignant hope to become more like a normal city -- like, say, St. Louis. (Like many cities, St. Louis has become a bit like Las Vegas: a riverboat casino sits next to the Gateway Arch.) But even Ms. Jones has a hard time getting the hang of normality. She stresses the fact that the city now has a big NASCAR race, and the National Finals Rodeo, and Garth Brooks and Bob Dylan are coming, so is the Broadway musical "Chicago."

Yes, but what about normality outside of entertainment? You know, things like other businesses. With no inventory tax, Nevada has lots of warehouses, but not a substantially diverse economic base. Hotels, gambling and recreation directly provide about one-third of all jobs, and indirectly generate many more.

For tens of millions of Americans, increasingly incited by their governments, which run lotteries and tax casinos, gambling is a regular part of weekly recreation. The spread of gambling across the nation, instead of hurting Las Vegas, has helped it in two ways. It has removed the stigma from gambling, and hence from this city, and has made a visit to this city as desirable for gamblers as a visit to Yankee Stadium is for baseball fans. By the end of this year, the city will have 122,000 hotel and motel rooms (New York City has a piddling 62,500) and the hotel occupancy rate is a gaudy 90 percent.

Nevada is a monument to "entrepreneurial federalism." In its first fling at that, it exploited other states' resistance to liberal divorce laws. No state could beat Nevada in the competition to have the shortest residency requirement or the longest list of easy-to-prove grounds for divorce. In 1931, the year construction of Hoover Dam began down the road, the legislature let loose a force more powerful than the Colorado River: casino gambling.

Money machines

Ms. Jones, who is practically a native by Nevada standards, says she came here in 1981 because her family, based in California, owned four Las Vegas supermarkets. The markets had 48 slot machines. The markets were losing money as markets -- on food and soft drinks and paper towels and such. But they were making a lot of money on the slots.

And there you have the great constant in a city that is almost a caricature of America's whirl of change. Ms. Jones says that 10 years from now Las Vegas will be as changed as the city is changed from 10 years ago. No doubt, but its heartbeat will still be gambling, which will still be called gaming.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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