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Jackpot! : It Wasn't Luck That Made Laughlin, Nev., Boom

March 17, 1985|JERRY COHEN | Times Staff Writer

LAUGHLIN, Nev. — To call this a boom town is an outrageous understatement.

In fact, the only guarantee that can be attached to this mini-Baghdad-by-the-Colorado River is this: Propelled by the infusion of still more gambling-related investment than already exists, the Laughlin of tomorrow won't resemble the Laughlin of today any more than the Laughlin of today approximates the Laughlin of yesterday. And the Laughlin of yesterday was a poor bedraggled thing for which only the most optimistic of visionaries would have predicted survival.

"Every projection I've made about Laughlin since I bought my land here in 1978 has taken half the (predicted) time to happen," said Robert Bilbray, a Las Vegas lawyer turned Laughlin developer who owns 80% of the private land available here for residential development. "All the demographics I did have been blown to smithereens. Now I'm very leery about making projections about Laughlin's growth or the character of that growth."

A skimpy patch of history is in order here.

A mere 18 years ago, an enterprising ex-Minnesotan named Don Laughlin (today's town is named after him) piloted his private plane over this remote spot across the Colorado River from the drowsy little recreational backwash of Bullhead City, Ariz. He thought the dusty, scrubby no-name tuft of land possessed "good potential," figuring that residents of Kingman, Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City in Arizona and Needles in California might be willing to cross the fast-flowing Colorado to gamble.

Laughlin, now 53, sold a small casino he owned in North Las Vegas and bought a little club containing only a dozen slot machines and no other gambling equipment. Later he knocked out a wall and added a blackjack table and crap table.

And the club, which, sitting where it did, he named the Riverside, grew and grew. As recently as four years ago, however, only two competitors survived of the three who had dared set up shop along the Colorado and adjacent to an unlighted rut-ridden dirt road that had no sidewalks.

And Laughlin remained scarcely more than a whisper on Nevada's clamorous gambling landscape.

Nevada's 1984 gambling revenues, according to figures released in Carson City last week, dramatically illustrate the astonishing Laughlin phenomenon. Last year's taxable gambling revenues here totaled $117.7 million compared to $80.3 million during the previous year.

That's an increase of 46.6% in a single year, an extraordinary statistic when matched against revenues of the Las Vegas Strip, which increased only 2.5%, and downtown Las Vegas, which experienced an increase of 7.5% in 1984.

Of course, the income generated by gambling in Laughlin remains minuscule when compared to the totals of the two giant Las Vegas wagering centers that together in 1984 amassed a total of more than $1.6 billion.

Still, the percentage of increase is what casino operators consider eye-opening and, as many of them predict, Laughlin already may be well on the way to overtaking Lake Tahoe as the state's No. 3 gaming revenue producer behind Las Vegas and Reno-Sparks.

In 1983, Tahoe's take from gamblers was three times as much as Laughlin's. Last year, its $248.9 million was only about double Laughlin's gambling revenues.

Another illustrative figure: Two years ago, Laughlin had 450 hotel rooms and, at most, 2,000 employees. Today, it has 1,600 rooms scattered among its seven casinos and 6,000 employees.

Tomorrow? Well, consider this: The Riverside now has 350 rooms, and Don Laughlin says he is planning to increase the number to 800. The biggest establishment in town, the Circus Circus-owned 600-room Edgewater Hotel and Casino plans a similar increment and the new 225-room Sam's Town Gold River has a master plan calling for another 500.

As if that weren't enough, sufficient privately owned land (the vast majority of acreage in the Laughlin area is federal property) exists along Casino Drive, which was paved only a few months ago, to permit the construction of at least eight more substantial casino-hotels. And, almost overnight, major hotel chain and casino operators across the nation have riveted their attention on Laughlin.

According to developer Bilbray, scarcely a day goes by that he doesn't receive inquiries "from casinos not only in this state but in Atlantic City about buying property." And none of the property he owns is even zoned for casino construction--yet.

Just what is the allure of this place that once was the proverbial wide spot in a dirt road, and not an especially negotiable dirt road at that?

One can dredge up a mix of plausible theories depending on whom one talks to. But a common logic runs through them all.

"Location, location, location," said one casino manager in support of this rationale. The town was a "natural," he explained, noting that it lies smack dab in the middle of one of the nation's most rapidly expanding recreational areas.

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