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Vegas on a Roll : Whoever Thought Sin City Would Become the Place to Take Your Kids, Retire in Luxury and Bask in the Sun Belt's Quality of Life?

December 17, 1989|ALAN PRENDERGAST | Alan Prendergast is a Denver writer and author of "The Poison Tree," published by Avon Books.

The Mirage will cater to a more upscale customer than the Excalibur, but both mega-resorts offer entertainment packages in which gambling is only part of the attraction. Gambling is also downplayed in television commercials sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which tout the city as "the American way to play." The ads feature glimpses of celebrities, scenes of outdoor recreation, night life--but not a single shot of a casino.

The campaign was developed by R & R Advertising, a local agency whose founder, Sig Rogich, is one of President Bush's media advisers. Federal Communications Commission regulations prohibit advertising casino gambling on television and radio; but Rob Powers, director of public relations for R & R, says the ads wouldn't have been much different without the no-gambling rule.

"For decades, Las Vegas was portrayed as a one-dimensional place," Powers says. "Gambling is still our biggest draw, but there was a realization that, hey, we're a Southwest city with great weather. The outdoor recreational possibilities here are practically unlimited. And if we can get people to take advantage of the other amenities we have to offer, they'll stay longer and they'll bring the whole family."

Not that anyone wants to neglect gambling. Industry analysts estimate that Americans wager $240 billion a year in legal and illegal bets, a 50% increase since 1983. Despite competition from other forms of gambling, casinos still represent the largest piece of the action, with $162 billion in bets placed on tables and in slot machines nationwide in 1988. Last year, Nevada casinos reported $4.2 billion in gross gambling revenues, a $340-million increase over the previous year. Las Vegas accounts for more than two-thirds of the state's gambling action. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, 17 million people visited southern Nevada last year: a steady stream of vacationers from the Midwest on three- to four-day junkets; conventioneers representing video software dealers, Southern Baptists and hundreds of other groups; a growing number of foreign tourists, including more than 300,000 Japanese, and millions of regular customers from Southern California, the city's primary market.

Despite the growing revenues, not everyone in Las Vegas is pleased with the changing image of the gambling industry. Bob Stupak, for one

"I think it's a problem," says Stupak. "I was brought up to believe that gambling was a vice. I think it may be getting a little too wholesome."

Stupak is an independent entrepreneur in an industry increasingly dominated by large corporations. He's an outspoken maverick--the kind of guy who once bet $1 million on the Super Bowl (and won) and twice ran for mayor (and lost). While Steve Wynn polishes his clean-cut image (he reportedly refuses to be photographed next to a craps table or slot machine), Stupak allowed Vegas World to be featured prominently in "Crime Story," NBC's short-lived fictional series about Vegas' mob-tainted past. While Circus Circus executives talk about "merchandising playtime," Stupak still uses the word "gambling," not "gaming," in his advertising; games, he says, are for kids.

"I'm against the family-oriented attractions," Stupak says. "I think this should be an adult destination. Kids shouldn't be brought up with it."

Stupak may grouse about the broadening of the market, but he's willing to exploit it. He recently announced his latest contribution to the construction fever: a modest proposal for a 1,012-foot, neon-lighted observation tower to be erected in the Vegas World parking lot. The tower would be 28 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower and three times the height of any other structure in Nevada.

The proposal disgusts some of Stupak's foes in city government--he's wrangled with them over building permits in the past. But local pundits defend him, pointing out that this is still Las Vegas, after all. If Bugsy Siegel could have his fabulous fuchsia-tinted palace and Steve Wynn can have his Hawaiian-Island-on-the-Strip, why deny Bob Stupak his towering, winking-neon dream?

BEVERLY BURNETT first laid eyes on the Strip almost 20 years ago, when she was a teen-ager on vacation with her parents. The memory has stayed with her like a scene from a particularly gruesome horror movie. "I thought it was the ugliest place I'd ever seen," she recalls. "It's like an adult amusement park, and I don't like amusement parks. I was one of those kids who hated the rides."

Burnett still gets "a gut-wrenching, sickening feeling" whenever she drives down the Strip. If she had been told, during that first visit, that she would one day be raising a family in Las Vegas, she would have laughed. But five years ago, the occupational therapist and her husband pulled up stakes in San Francisco and headed for the green-felt jungle. They now have two children, both Las Vegas natives.

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