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From Craps to Cranberry Juice

As the Gambling Capital Jams Ahead as the Fastest-Growing City in America, Does Anyone Know Where It'll End Up? (Hint: Don't Put All Your Chips on Casino Gambling.)

March 16, 1997|TOM GORMAN | Tom Gorman is a Times staff writer. His last story for the magazine examined how architects and designers stylize Las Vegas' image

Some 2,400 of the faithful--at 50 bucks a head--have crammed into the darkened, cavernous room at the Las Vegas Hilton. Spotlights illuminate a polished emcee as he pumps up the throng; overhead lights dance on a curtain behind him, creating the illusion of deep-space stars and celestial rings in reds, blues, yellows and greens. The spectacle literally erupts as confetti-filled cannons explode and pyrotechnics shower the stage. * This extravaganza is called Preview '97, but it's not the debut of Sin City's newest illusionists or nudes on ice. Rather, it is a production of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, celebrating with vintage Strip showmanship the seemingly oh-so-bright future of the booming region. And why not confetti and fireworks? Last year, about 30 million people came here under no duress to empty their wallets--including $6 billion on gambling alone. And thousands more move here every month, either to retire or work. As master-planned neighborhoods spread across the valley, nearby gypsum miners rush to fill the demand for plasterboard. With the facts to back it up, everyone rightfully proclaims that Las Vegas is on a roll. * So, we can indulge local business leaders for their annual exercise in hyperbolic self-congratulation, for staging what amounts to a glitzy infomercial, a sort of "Las Vegas: This Is Your Life!" But as the afternoon wears on and the parade of boosters continues, one speaker--an out-of-town management consultant--refers to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," advising the city that it's time to make some decisions. * "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" he quotes Alice beseeching the Cheshire Cat. * "That depends a good deal," the Cat responds, "on where you want to get to." * And that's just the point. The keepers of this city, as curious as any Wonderland, are searching for direction, asking what the city wants to be when it grows up. And wondering: What are the odds?

*

Jan Laverty Jones is mayor of Las Vegas, and while her kingdom does not extend to the Strip--that greenback gravy train is in unincorporated Clark County--she unabashedly postures herself as the region's conscience. Jones, 47, wouldn't mind running the whole state; in 1994, she tried (and failed) to unseat Nevada Gov. Bob Miller in the Democratic primary. Local voters still embrace her, though, returning her to a 10th-floor corner office atop City Hall for a second term in 1995. Through glass picture windows, she looks down on the Lady Luck casino and, almost as far as the eye can see, sprawling suburbs.

Because she's such an enthusiastic, attractive and fit woman, you want to toss her pompoms and watch her run through a cheer-leading routine: Go, Vegas, GO! Old-timers remember her as a born promoter, beaming on television, pitching for the local Fletcher Jones automotive dealerships; an upbeat huckster who didn't mind posing alongside a female impersonator if it helped sell a car.

But these days, Jones is not all giggles and grins. She wonders whether people will find Las Vegas--the reincarnation of an Old West boomtown, with the nation's fastest metropolitan growth rate and 1.1 million residents--an attractive place to live and raise families 10, 15, 30 years from now.

"We have to quit focusing on what we do well--we do resorts well--and focus on what we don't do well: the quality of life and developing a city that is more than life-support for gaming," she says.

For years, civic leaders celebrated the spoils of gambling for prompting the snowball of growth. But it has turned into an avalanche, overrunning the city's ability to keep pace. By at least one measure, the burgeoning population isn't paying for itself: A 1991 study revealed that sales and property taxes paid by a new household totaled about $1,000 a year, while public expenditures associated with that household were about $6,500. It seems that Las Vegas, built with out-of-town money, is short-changing itself. And, Jones says, local governments need $10 billion just to catch up.

The school district must open, on average, a new campus every month to accommodate the influx of children. The water district requires more pipelines to deliver water from Lake Mead to thirsty new neighborhoods. Vacationers have turned little McCarran International Airport into the nation's 10th busiest, and it must expand even more. Motorists cry for new expressways around Las Vegas--and a monorail along the Strip--to ease congestion. And federal highway, airport and water funds are jeopardized because of worsening air quality, evidenced by a ground-hugging band of ocher beneath a brilliant blue sky.

Only by addressing these problems, the mayor insists, can the city diversify and nourish its young soul.

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