Where a Casino Makes a Neighborhood

Times Staff Writer

In traditional caps and gowns, the nearly 400 graduates of Foothill High -- a quintessential suburban school -- crossed the stage recently to receive their diplomas in front of proud parents and cheering friends.

It was a time-honored ceremony repeated across America. But what set this one apart was the venue: the three-tower, 21-story Orleans Hotel & Casino that looms over Tropicana Avenue -- two miles west of the fabled Strip -- across the street from the Seamless Adult Ultra Lounge and the Deja Vu Adult Emporium.

The Orleans is one of a new breed of neighborhood casinos that have become de facto civic and family-entertainment centers, complete with day care, bowling alleys, movie theaters and convention space.

As its population nears 2 million, Las Vegas is becoming more mainstream and shedding its mob-stained history. Schools are opening at a rapid pace, and the city scrambles to hire teachers. Retirees have flocked here, and respected medical centers have opened.

But the locals also love to gamble, spending an estimated $1,500 per person annually. And as the population has exploded, a dozen of these neighborhood casinos -- sprawling affairs of up to 80 acres with huge hotels and parking garages that tend to dominate their neighborhoods -- have gone up since 1994. They nearly ring the city, and at least five more are in the works.

The latest and splashiest, the Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa at the western edge of town, opened in April at a cost of nearly $1 billion. It's already expanding.

Though Vegas has had neighborhood casinos for decades, the latest versions not only play an expanded role in the city but are far bigger, more elaborate and more profitable than their sometimes seedy predecessors. For the first time, they're even attracting a fair number of tourists turned off by the glitter and crowds on the Strip.

As corporate strategy, it has paid off handsomely for Station Casinos Inc., the leader in this expanding market. Earnings have more than doubled since 2002, to $309 million last year, as revenue jumped by 40% to $1.1 billion, both records. The company claimed the highest return on investment and fattest profit margin -- 43% -- in the highly profitable gaming industry last year.

Although the nongambling amenities might get people in the door, the company says 87% of its cash flow comes from slot machines. And 80% to 85% of its customers are locals.

One of those locals is Dante Olgado, a corporate finance executive lunching for free the other day at the Green Valley Ranch in suburban Henderson, Nev. The lunch was a "comp" for his time at the poker tables playing Texas Hold 'Em.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people who live here say they don't gamble," but that's nonsense, Olgado said.

Customers say they get friendlier service and better odds -- especially in video poker, a game of some skill that is by far the most popular among locals -- at these neighborhood outposts than on the Strip. Locals can get by without celebrity chefs and tourist-choked traffic.

"The parking is better, the bargains are better, and the odds are better at the neighborhood casinos," said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, a newsletter of insider advice on deals. "They're dealing with a more sophisticated and discerning customer. The Strip doesn't have to do that because the tourists are there for the sizzle."

The advantages of the increasingly resort-like neighborhood casinos are also proving attractive to more tourists, business travelers and out-of-towners visiting friends or family, said Curtis. The neighborhood casinos rely on them, as well as locals having a fling, to fill up their hotels.

Today's elaborate neighborhood edifices are creatures of Las Vegas' rapid growth and of a gradual blurring of the boundaries between public and private spaces, said Hal Rothman, a history professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of "Neon Metropolis."

Las Vegas grew too fast to establish many public or semipublic facilities, Rothman said, and the casinos have stepped in as a way to lure more people.

"The result is that the neighborhood casino has taken on a civic dimension," Rothman said.

Thus the 9,000-seat arena at the Orleans, connected to the casino by a walkway, is a logical site for high school commencements. Foothill High's ceremonies made news when school officials, believing the devout Christian valedictorian was proselytizing in her speech, switched off the microphone. But Foothill High, in suburban Henderson, was just one of 21 public high schools to hold graduations at the Orleans this year.

"Our schools are too small for commencement, so we have to find outside venues," explained Pat Nelson, spokeswoman for Clark County School District. "If anybody objected, I'm not aware of it," she said, adding: "It wasn't actually inside the casino."

The Las Vegas Wranglers, a minor league hockey team, plays at the Orleans, which also hosts attractions such as Champions on Ice and the Harlem Globetrotters.

Most of these places have cavernous bowling alleys. Several have convention centers. The South Coast -- a recently opened, 25-story hotel-casino complex far south of the Strip -- has an equestrian center for horse shows.

And the casino operators have captured about three-fourths of the movie screens in Las Vegas.

"You're not a casino anymore if you don't have movie theaters," said David Bothe, a painting contractor and loyal Orleans customer.

Bothe, who has lived here 18 years, patronizes the Orleans because it's in his neighborhood. "It's got everything I need. I will do anything to avoid the Strip," he said.

Nancy Tucker's neighborhood casino is the 5-year-old Green Valley Ranch. It anchors a small, upscale shopping center. The casino has eight restaurants and six fast-food outlets, 10 movie screens, 496 hotel rooms and three swimming pools.

More to the point, it has 2,330 slot machines, a sports book and 54 gaming tables.

"If someone says they're going to Pottery Barn and then might wander over to the casino, I figure gambling is really what they're interested in, you know?" said Tucker, a real estate agent who has lived here 12 years and spends her share of time playing video poker.

In the early days of Las Vegas, the locals' casinos were modest dollar-a-beer joints with loose slots that catered to budget-minded tourists and the folks who lived here, typically employees at the hotels and casinos on the Strip. Arguably the first was the Showboat, well east of the Strip, which opened in the 1950s and eventually added entertainment like a roller derby and shows with vaudeville comedian George Jessel.

But as the Strip began to boom in the 1970s and hired workers by the tens of thousands, the "locals market" raced into the fast-spreading subdivisions of the Las Vegas Valley.

Those workers -- and their doctors, grocers and dry cleaners -- wanted a place to gamble away from the Strip and closer to home.

Some astute casino operators -- notably, Boyd Gaming Corp. founders Sam Boyd and son William S. Boyd; and Frank Fertitta Jr., who started the company that became Station Casinos -- recognized this early on.

New versions of the locals' casinos sprang up, including Sam's Town on the city's Boulder Highway in 1979.

A comfortable, down-home kind of place in a working-class neighborhood, Sam's Town has expanded eight times, most recently in 2001, when it added an 18-screen movie theater and a special events center for shows. It is now one of four neighborhood casinos operated by Boyd Gaming here.

Just up the road is Boulder Station, which Station Casinos opened in 1994 as its first modern-day neighborhood gambling hall. The company went on to build four more gambling halls, and bought and expanded three others. The company, which also manages six smaller casinos around town, owns acreage with gambling entitlements for five more casinos -- including the site of the recently demolished Showboat.

Boulder Station, which features country and western performers like Charley Pride, remains the most profitable Station facility, said Scott Nielson, Station executive vice president.

Just inside the Boulder Station casino entrance from the parking garage is the child-care facility, which has become a common feature at neighborhood casinos, as well as in Indian-owned casinos elsewhere.

A Minnesota firm, Kids Quest, operates the facility. For $6.25 to $7.50 an hour, patrons can drop off their children as long as they -- the kids -- are wearing socks. On weekends, children can play until 1 a.m. while their parents gamble the college tuition.

"What were once vices are now habits," historian Rothman said, quoting a 1970s Doobie Brothers album title. "Las Vegas is on the cutting edge of the new normal ... whether you and I like it or not."

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