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Hometown U.S.A.: Primm, Nev.

Luring Vegas-bound visitors off the highway

With three casinos, a golf course and a roller coaster, the state-line town is a roadside curiosity turned welcome mat to Nevada's gambling culture.

January 12, 2013|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Buffalo Bill's is one of three casinos in the state-line town of Primm, Nev.
Buffalo Bill's is one of three casinos in the state-line town of Primm,… (Buffalo Bill's Resort &…)

At dusk, driving north on Interstate 15 near the California-Nevada border, Loren Gill descends a graceful mountain straightaway and sees before him the twinkling lights of the Promised Land.

But this isn't Las Vegas — that's still 40 miles away. Instead, Gill spies the stopover at Primm, Nev. With three casinos and sundry services, it's a roadside curiosity turned welcome mat to Nevada's casino culture.

As the district manager of Affinity Gaming, which runs the three gambling establishments, it's Gill's job to make sure that a good number of the 40,000 cars, pickups, RVs and semis that pass here each day ignore the siren call of the Strip, if just for a moment. His vision is to see thousands of gamblers hit the brakes, wander inside and lay their money down.

Gill, 44, is the unofficial mayor of a place with no school, post office or municipal government. Primm's calling cards are wagering emporiums with names like Primm Valley, Buffalo Bill's and Whiskey Pete's, along with a top-flight golf course, outlet mall and roller coaster.

Still, Primm sits in the middle of nowhere. Assigned here two years ago, Gill was depressed over his fate until he looked out from one of the hotel rooms and saw headlights and taillights stretching for miles in both directions.

That's when the gambler in him surfaced. That's when Gill saw opportunity.

"I saw all those car lights and realized that my job was to devise more ways to get people off that interstate," he said. "I try to get 'em both ways — to stop in on their way to the Strip or serve as the last stop in Nevada to get your gambling fix and place that football bet."

Primm is part of a plan by various Nevada entrepreneurs, starting in the 1970s, to pick off incoming gamblers before they reach the lights of Las Vegas. They're border-dwellers like Jackpot, Laughlin and Stateline, each wanting its share of the state's gambling action.

Many quote Gertrude Stein's famous observation about Oakland, that there's "no there there," when talking about Primm, said Eugene Moehring, a historian at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

"Primm is a contrived place," he said. "I don't see it as a real place."

A century ago, this border spot was the sole domain of an old moonshiner named Pete MacIntyre, known as Whiskey Pete, who made his illicit sales out of a gas station. When he died in 1934, Pete was buried facing the highway, a desert character memorialized in his obituary as a "rough, tough, gun-toting galoot."

For years the place was known as Stateline. Then casino developer Gary Primm launched a major project that included 2,000 hotel rooms and 4,000 slot machines. The locale was renamed after him.

Eventually, casino operators built a roller coaster called the Desperado, once the world's tallest, and a monorail to whisk gamblers between casinos. Primm became a stopover for an off-road race circuit and once hosted the World's Strongest Man competition. A convenience store here has in the past averaged $200,000 a week in lottery sales, 60 times the average California retailer.

To lure workers, the casinos also built on-site housing for 650 casino employees, replacing trailers that once stood there. Regular bus service is supplied to Las Vegas for workers. "This place is in the middle of nowhere, but it's cool," said Ricky Garcia, 32, a father of three whose wife is a casino worker. "It's a good place to escape the drama of the city."

Gill has followed that tradition to attract a "very middle American" customer. Primm now lures Southern California's black and Latino market from the state's Indian gaming casinos. Concerts at the 6,000-seat arena feature ethnic performers, and many gambling tables have bilingual dealers. Primm has upgraded rooms, added fast-food restaurants and plans to add a major truck stop.

But Primm's past also includes a slaying that made national news. In 1997, Long Beach teenager Jeremy Strohmeyer strangled 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson in a bathroom stall near a casino arcade.

The killing inspired what is known as the Sherrice Iverson law requiring Nevadans to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. The law stemmed from the inaction of a cohort of Strohmeyer's — 17-year-old David Cash — who stood by and did nothing to stop the crime. Clark County also now requires all arcade workers to undergo eight hours of training in how to spot potential child abuse.

One security expert says Strohmeyer's crime still marks Primm.

"Most people in my business know Primm in terms of that incident," said Alan W. Zajic, a Nevada casino security consultant. "But Primm has put that crime in its past. If customers don't know or remember it occurred, they'll keep on coming."

On a gray weekday morning, the only thing Primm gambler Steven Wright knew was that he was losing.

"I've stopped here on my way to Vegas and lost all my money," said the 30-year-old San Fernando Valley construction worker sporting a spare cigarette behind his left ear. "I sure hope that doesn't happen again."

He sighed, then hit the button on the slot machine and watched the figures spin.

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