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Laughlin’s Winning Bet : From Decrepit Motel to Busy Gambling Resort

Times Staff Writer

Don Laughlin sat in his offices overlooking the Colorado River and mused about the town he started there 21 years ago.

It had looked like a long shot, but Laughlin took what seemed to be a gamble and won.

He turned a boarded-up, eight-room motel with a snack bar and a dozen slot machines into the still-expanding 660-room Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino, which is now one of seven gambling resorts in the small but booming community bearing his name.

Seventh Hotel Opened

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Laughlin, Nev. has seven casinos now; the seventh, the most unusual-looking, officially opened Wednesday in a ceremony accompanied by trumpeter Al Hirt.

The new hotel is the $80-million Colorado Belle, which has the largest casino in Laughlin, five dining areas and 200 of its 1,235 rooms in a 600-foot-long replica of a three-deck paddle wheeler. The remaining rooms are in an adjoining French Quarter-style hotel, next door to the Edgewater Hotel & Casino. All are owned by Circus-Circus Enterprises.

Laughlin is 300 miles from Los Angeles, 240 miles from Phoenix, and 90 miles from Las Vegas.

An unincorporated town, Laughlin (population: 2,600) is across the river from Bullhead City, Ariz. (population: 21,000).

The two communities are connected by casino-owned ferries, a five-mile winding road that crosses the river over Davis Dam by Lake Mojave and a new, more conveniently located $2.7-million bridge, which Laughlin donated to the state of Nevada on his 56th birthday in May. By the middle of last week, though, the bridge still hadn’t opened.

Why? Laughlin replied, “Clark County is negotiating with the state over who will maintain it.” With insurance costing more than $1,000 a day, he said, “we can’t afford it. So, like the airport, we donated it.”

Operates Airport

A commercial helicopter and multi-engine pilot himself, Laughlin operates the airport, which is in Bullhead City. He hopes to expand it, enabling larger planes to fly from Laughlin to major cities.

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There are a couple of small companies that ferry people to several places, including the San Fernando Valley and Orange County but not Los Angeles International Airport.

“We’re being challenged by Las Vegas,” Laughlin complained. “Las Vegas doesn’t want us to expand, so there is a tug of war in getting federal funds.”

Las Vegas and Laughlin are in the same county, but even Don Laughlin agrees that they are not in the same ballpark when it comes to gambling revenues. Laughlin overtook Lake Tahoe last year, though, and is third, behind Las Vegas and Reno--but “We’re a distant third,” Dan Tucksen, director of the Laughlin Chamber of Commerce, said.

Popular Resort

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Even so, the 32-square-mile Laughlin is a boom town and such a popular resort that it’s almost impossible to get a room without advance reservations.

In the winter, Laughlin mostly draws retirees, many in recreation vehicles. In the summer, when Laughlin is often the hottest spot in the country and frequently hits 120 degrees, it draws waterskiers and fishermen.

Tucksen estimated that 69% of the town’s business comes from Southern California, 21% from Arizona, and 10% from Nevada and other states.

Charles Silverman, whose firm, Yates-Silverman, created the interiors for the Colorado Belle, designed by architect Veldon Simpson, said the idea of creating the hotel in the shape of a Victorian showboat or Mississippi gambling boat was a natural, because “it’s a born-in-America type thing.

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‘Not the High Rollers’

“The people (who come to Laughlin) relate to a river boat, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. They’re Mr. and Mrs. America. They’re not the high rollers. They pay $2.49 for a buffet.”

Or 49 cents for two eggs, bacon or sausage, toast and coffee at Sam’s Town Gold River, a hotel and casino at the south end of Casino Drive. Other casinos are Del Webb’s Nevada Club, Pioneer Hotel and Regency Casino.

In Laughlin, Don Laughlin owns The Riverside and its 400-space RV park. He is still the postmaster--though he admits, “I wouldn’t even know how to make out a money order.” But he is not the largest private landowner in town anymore.

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“We might have 5,000 acres (the 100-room River Queen included) on the Arizona side,” he said, “but over here, we only have 92.”

Zoned for More Casinos

Of 2,500 privately owned acres in Laughlin, about 1,500 are owned by two developers--John Midby & Associates and Bilbray Industries--Tucksen said. One is developing businesses and housing, the other is looking into building more casinos.

Laughlin is zoned for 12 more and a total of 15,000 hotel rooms. There are 3,100 in town now, and a year ago, there were only 1,625.

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Construction is under way on about 500 more at the $50-million-to-$60-million Ramada Station Hotel, across the street from the Colorado Belle. Tucksen described it as “the first major hotel to be built in Laughlin that is off the river.” A gimmick will be a railroad that will run around its parking lot.

“And on the drawing board is a $50-million-to-$60-million Harrah’s, owned by the Holiday Inn,” Tucksen said. A ground-breaking ceremony is scheduled during Laughlin River Days, starting Aug. 2. “It would link Casino Drive to the housing area,” Tucksen explained.

Housing for Employees

Housing is a relatively new element in Laughlin because most of the privately owned land was occupied by casinos until recently. The rest belonged to the U. S. government, the state of Nevada or Southern California Edison Co.

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The Colorado River Commission turned loose some public land in the past few years because of pressure for affordable housing on the Laughlin side of the river for the increasing numbers of casino employees.

Even the existing casinos and hotels keep getting larger, but Don Laughlin doesn’t view these or the new hotels as a threat.

Speaking about the Colorado Belle, he said, “Although its casino will have some impact, they had all but the last 200 rooms open for months, and we were full all the time.”

Convention Facilities

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He’s adding some convention-type facilities at The Riverside that aren’t available elsewhere in town, anyway, he said.

A new showroom is being built to accommodate 1,000 people, and The Riverside just added 300 hotel rooms and the “Losers’ Lounge,” featuring photos of what Laughlin termed “famous losers"--the Titanic, Hitler, Richard Nixon. “And I’m a right winger,” Laughlin said with a laugh.

Laughlin, a slightly built, white-haired version of actor James Cagney, can afford to laugh. There have been many losers, even in real estate, in his town’s and Bullhead City’s past, but the kid who dropped out of a Minnesota high school because he was making $500 a week on a few slot machines he bought then is a clear winner now.

Tucksen said, “For sure, he’s the richest individual in Laughlin. You could call him a multimillionaire.”

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Laughlin owns a Rolls-Royce, which he keeps in Las Vegas (“This is no place to drive a Rolls”); a 10-passenger Cessna Citation II, which he uses to transport what he describes as the “VIP players;” a six-passenger Cessna Turbo T-310, and a helicopter.

Swapped Ranch Land

He just swapped 25,000 acres of his 61,000-acre cattle ranch near Kingman, Ariz. with the Bureau of Land Management for 5,000 acres in Bullhead City, because that land is becoming so valuable, he said.

He once turned down an offer of $95 million for The Riverside and figures river-front land is now worth $2 million an acre in Laughlin.

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He has 600 head of cattle, 1,000 head of Angora goats and a lodge at his ranch for his family--three grown children and two grandchildren, friends and employees.

Asked about his net worth, though, Laughlin said, “I don’t like to think about it. I just think about what I owe.”

He and his 35-year-old son Dan have been talking about building another 350 rooms at the Riverside. “But I don’t want to go into debt,” he said.

Stopped Gambling

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Laughlin is no gambler.

“I used to deal a shift and play a shift,” he said, but he stopped gambling about the time an Irish postmaster named the town Laughlin because it is a good Irish name.

Laughlin didn’t envision the town growing the way it has, but even then, he thought the place would do well, because there were no casinos for a population of 30,000 within a short driving distance, he said.

He worked hard and expanded his motel and casino as he saved the cash. “I lived here for 18 years with no windows, because that’s the way we built things.”

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For many years, bank executives just laughed at the idea of financing gambling, he added, but this month, Laughlin is expected to get its own bank. “I wanted it to open on the 13th just to defy bad luck.”

Laughlin lives in a penthouse at The Riverside. He has been separated from his wife since about 1970 and has a girlfriend, his head cocktail waitress. They just won three first-place ballroom dance awards and they take Spanish lessons together in Los Angeles.

He still works hard and calls himself “a night owl.” “I start work about 10 or 11 a.m. and go until daylight.”

The odds were even 21 years ago that work like that would pay off.

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