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JOSEPH N. BELL

Hot Time in New Town Opens a Long Journey

July 06, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

For the next six weeks, I'll be driving across the United States, sending back periodic reports about how things look out there to a three-decade resident of California's Orange County. I'll be driving alone to Florida's Orange County--across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and the southeastern states. My wife and stepson will fly to Florida to vacation (I hope that's what it will be) with me at Walt Disney World and later in North Carolina. Then they'll fly home and I'll drive back to California through the Midwest.

Those who think I'm out of my mind to drive 7,000 miles in the worst heat of summer, listen up. I'll be telling you why it refreshes and re-energizes me. And I'll also be writing about some of the riches of this country that can only be seen by car.

Since it has become a staple to a growing number of Orange County people--particularly those who own boats--I decided to spend my first night checking out Laughlin, Nev. If nothing else, it conditioned me for the heat I'll be experiencing the rest of my trip.

I hit Laughlin on a Saturday night. The temperature had been 102 during the day, and the body heat from the crowds in the casinos must have pushed it up another 10 degrees that night.

Las Vegas it ain't--which isn't necessarily bad. Although both cities exist primarily because of gambling (the Laughlin newspaper is called the Weekly Gambler and has a pair of dice and a royal flush in spades on the masthead), the similarity--right now, at least--ends there. Laughlin is a kinder, gentler, down-home Vegas (I haven't seen so many cowboy hats since I went to an Oklahoma-Texas football game years ago). And most of the people with whom I talked had the twang to go along.

Laughlin is built on the Colorado River, which separates it from Bullhead City on the other side. Water taxis carry commuters back and forth. The river serves multiple purposes in Laughlin. It's nice to look at, provides a launching pad for boaters (and sells all sorts of water trips), offers a natural "strip" for the casinos, and is even fit for swimming--in spite of all the boats I saw plying the river. The new Harrahs had a well-populated swimming beach, and from above, the water looked quite clear.

It takes almost exactly the same amount of time to drive to Laughlin from Orange County as it does to Vegas, even though the last 40 miles to Laughlin are over a roller-coaster two-lane road. Right now, it's about the only way to get to Laughlin, but that will be changing soon. Work has just gotten under way on a new, 7,500-foot runway at the Laughlin airport that will cost $26 million and be able to provide landing room for aircraft the size of a Boeing 727.

And that's not all that is changing in Laughlin. The first thing that strikes a visitor is the construction activity. Virtually every existing hotel is building an addition, some larger than the original. Harrahs--which just opened a few months ago--is already working on doubling its size. The Flamingo Hilton is now going up. And ground has been broken for the most expensive hotel-casino project in Nevada--an $800-million resort that will include four hotels and an 18-hole PGA championship golf course.

The numbers are almost stupefying. Laughlin's gaming revenues have been increasing at the rate of about $100 million per year, housing is booming and so is population (from 95 people just five years ago to 3,500 today), with a work force of 12,000.

The hotel-casinos have names like Colorado Belle and Pioneer and Riverside and Ramada Express. So many parking lots are being built over that the casinos are running buses to distant parking places--which makes Harrahs' covered garage next to the casino one of the primary attractions in town.

The current entertainment tends to be heavily country (the headliner the night I visited was Waylon Jennings, the "Nashville Rebel"), and the blackjack dealers talk spiritedly with customers about remote towns in Idaho or Oklahoma. And although there is much, much smoking, there are also numerous nonsmoking gambling tables and single-deck blackjack--both civilized customs hard to come by in Las Vegas.

The certainty that all this is going to change very soon sent me away feeling a little sad. We don't really need another Las Vegas in Laughlin, with hard-eyed blackjack dealers, $100 tables, dreadful architecture and people pushing one another around looking hassled and unhappy. But it's going to take a lot of high rollers to pay for all those new casinos in Laughlin, and the folks I met there somehow didn't fit that picture very well. Neither did the nickel slots and $2 blackjack tables and friendliness of the help still prevalent in Laughlin that almost make losing your money fun.

Oh well, maybe we can start another town up the river a bit.

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